Court records, including documents filed in probate and estate proceedings, are open to the public. Access to the court, including access by the media, is a fundamental principle which is guaranteed by the Charter. However, court filings in estate matters inevitably touch upon private and sensitive matters. This raises the competing interests of balancing privacy and safety interests with the principle that the courts are open to the public. In British Columbia, the open courts principle is paramount and will usually outweigh the right to privacy in estate matters.
In B.C., an application for a grant of probate must include the will, which means that once an application for probate has been filed, anyone can access and read the filed will. An application for a grant of probate or administration (if there is no will) must also include a list of all of the assets and liabilities of the estate. As a result, anyone can access the court file to determine the identity of estate beneficiaries and the assets of the estate, and determine, by inference, what each beneficiary stands to receive.
The same openness principle exists in contentious estate litigation proceedings. Estate litigation, which is often between family members, relating to determination of the validity of the will, issues of testamentary capacity or undue influence, and variation of wills can be highly contentious and highly emotional. This frequently results in the airing of personal and private matters in the courts, which means they become public.
Sealing orders limiting access to court records are available but rarely granted, as they are an exception to the open courts principle. A party seeking a sealing order has a heavy onus to show (1) the order is necessary to prevent a serious risk to an important interest which cannot be protected by an alternative method, and (2) the salutary effects of the confidentiality order outweigh its deleterious effects.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard submissions on whether the media ought to have access to the court files relating to the estates of Bernard and Honey Sherman, who held substantial wealth at the time of their high profile murders. Their murders remain unsolved. The hearings were widely reported in the media (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/barry-honey-sherman-court-estate-1.5752296).
The Sherman case was highly publicized, and the victims held considerable wealth at the time of their deaths (they were billionaires). Does this mean that they entitled to a greater degree of privacy than the average deceased person and their estate? The estate argued that in these circumstances the risk went beyond the typical privacy concerns, focusing on (1) the risk of publicity in this particular case, and (2) the fact that the murders remained unsolved.
In the Sherman proceedings, an Ontario Superior Court judge made orders without notice sealing certain court files relating to the Sherman Estates. The next month, the Toronto Star Newspaper and one of its reporters brought an application to terminate or vary the sealing orders. The judge dismissed the motion and upheld the sealing orders.
The Toronto Star appealed the order to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The trustees of the estate argued that (1) there is a need to protect the privacy and dignity of the victims of violent crime and their loved ones, and (2) there was a reasonable apprehension of risk to those who have an interest in receiving or administering the assets of the deceased. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside the sealing orders on two main grounds.
First, privacy concerns cannot, without more, justify an order sealing material that would normally be available to the public. This makes sense. Most will-makers, executors and beneficiaries would prefer that estate matters remain private, but that is not consistent with Canada’s open court principles.
Second, the Court of Appeal did not accept that because the identity and the motives of the murderers was unknown, it follows that the trustees and beneficiaries were also at risk. This was found to be speculation , and did not provide a basis for a sealing order.
The Supreme Court of Canada has now heard the arguments on appeal, and they have reserved judgment and will release their decision at a later date. Stay tuned.