This morning the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision on the sealing of the court files relating to the estates of Bernard and Honey Sherman, the wealthy victims of murders that remain unsolved, and that were widely reported in the media. I previous wrote about the case here, after the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions on whether the media ought to have access to the court files.
The Supreme of Canada dismissed the appeal brought by the trustees of the estates. The Court held that the sealing orders should not have been issued by the lower court, and the files were open to the public. The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada can be found here: Sherman Estate v. Donovan 2021 SCC 25
There is a strong presumption in favor of open courts. Court openness is a constitutional guarantee. Public scrutiny can cause inconvenience and even embarrassment to those who feel that the court system has intruded on their private lives. However, the Court confirmed that this discomfort is not enough to overturn “the strong presumption that the public can attend hearings and that court files can be consulted and reported upon by the free press.”
The court confirmed that there may be exceptional circumstances which justify a restriction on the open court principle. An applicant for a sealing order or similar relief must demonstrate that openness presents a serious risk to a competing interest of public importance. This is a high bar. Next, the applicant must show that the order is necessary to prevent the risk, and that the benefits of the order restricting openness outweigh its negative effect.
The estate trustees in the Sherman case argued that the concerns for (1) privacy, and (2) public safety were important public interests that are at such serious risk that the files should be sealed.
With respect to privacy concerns, the respondents to the appeal argued that virtually every court proceeding requires some intrusion on privacy. The Court held that proceedings in open court can lead to the dissemination of highly sensitive personal information, that could result in discomfort or embarrassment, or even an affront to dignify. In the latter case, an exception to the open court principle may be necessary.
However, the Court was not convinced that there was such a risk in these circumstances. The Court is not concerned with the mere fact of the dissemination of sensitive personal information – this happens in almost every court proceeding. The focus must be on the impact of the dissemination. The trustees failed to show how the lifting of the sealing order engages the dignity of the affected individuals. The Court observed that “the information in the court files about which the Trustees are concerned must be sufficiently sensitive in that it strikes at the biographical core of the affected individuals.” The trustees also failed to establish that there was serious risk of physical harm to the affected individuals.
The court did not accept that the matters in a probate file are quintessentially private or fundamentally administrative. The information contained in the files did not reveal anything particularly private about the affected individuals. It was acknowledged that there was near certainty that the media would publish at least parts of the estate files. Again, the risk of inconvenience and embarrassment resulting from publication is not enough.
In the end, the estate files will show the type of information found in any probate file. They may shed light on the relationship between the deceased and the affected individuals, in that we will see who they named as beneficiaries of their estate, and who they trusted to administer their estate. The only difference between this case and any other probate application is the high profile murders and intense media interest which will result in a larger audience for what are, in the normal course, publicly available documents. In those circumstances, a sealing order was not appropriate.