Because of the importance of what happens in the court system–for example, people’s freedom can be constrained, or people can be sued or declare bankruptcy–most of what happens in court is open to the public, and by extension, the media. There are some restrictions on that, such as proceedings in family court, but the rule of openness applies broadly. In some cases, access to court is given but certain information cannot be published or broadcast, such as evidence presented at a preliminary inquiry in a criminal case, the identities of offenders who were under 18 when a criminal offence was committed, the names of persons in care, etc. Your news media and the courts class will cover these issues in detail. This handout deals only with access to court records.
As well as having the right to attend most proceedings, the public and media can also retrieve and view a great many court records.
What follows is a summary of the main tools you can use, plus a short tutorial on searching for lawsuits at the supreme court. And remember to cross-check what you find in court records with records you find in other places.
Bankruptcies–The bankruptcy process in Canada is overseen by the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, a federal agency that is part of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. You can search for individuals or corporations that have gone bankrupt on the Innovation Canada website. Go to https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/eng/h_07042.html and choose “search bankruptcy and insolvency records.” A free account is required. Each search costs $8, whether you find anything or not. A successful search will provide the basic information about the bankruptcy. The detailed documents can be obtained from the appropriate regional office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, or at the appropriate superior court office (Nova Scotia Supreme Court, for example). The superintendent of bankruptcy will typically send you the records at no charge. Information and contacts can be found on this Nova Scotia courts page.
Bankruptcy records will provide you with details such as how much was owed, the assets and liabilities of the bankrupt parties and the names of all of the creditors.
Civil suits (lawsuits)--A great many kinds of lawsuits can be filed in Nova Scotia’s supreme court. Negligence suits allege that some party acted in a negligent way, resulting in an injury or other wrong to the plaintiff. Defamation suits (governed by the Defamation Act) are filed by those who feel a publication or verbal comments have damaged their reputations. A defamation notice must be served on the person or publication alleged to have defamed the plaintiff before an action can commence; the suit itself is filed in the supreme court. Those who allege they are owed money for construction or other work they performed on a property can register a lien on the property at the land titles office, and then file a suit in the supreme court to enforce the lien (this is done under the Builders’ Lien Act).
Civil actions usually begin with a statement of claim by the plaintiff, which is typically followed by a statement of defence filed by the defendant. There can also be counterclaims. All of the documents related to one suit are kept in a file at the supreme court. Remember that the claims in the pleadings of a lawsuit are unproven and your story must say so. Lawsuits involving large sums or money, prominent individuals or companies or particularly unusual circumstances can be particularly newsworthy.
Files for lawsuits being heard in Halifax can be found at the court administration office (Lower Water St. courthouse, foot of Duke St, main floor). It also keeps files for criminal cases heard by the supreme court (usually, more serious offences–most routine criminal matters are heard in provincial court), and for appeal court cases, foreclosures, bankruptcies, etc. You can find a file in one of two ways.
Each week, a printout of all the civil cases started that week is placed in a binder that is located on a table in a small room on the right side of the administration office (as viewed by someone coming in the front door of the office). You can see the parties to the case, the date it was filed and the file number. Binders for previous years can often be found on the shelves in the same room. There are also binders on the shelves for bankruptcies, appeal cases and so on. It can be fun to explore.
You can also find supreme court cases, using the computer terminals in the room to the left side of the administration office. The two terminals closest to the door can be used to search for civil and criminal cases in the supreme court. The one closest to the windows is used to search probate files. You will find entries for files held at courthouses throughout Nova Scotia. To view a file you need to go to the appropriate courthouse.
The search is done by entering the names of one of the parties to the case (plaintiff or defendant in civil cases, applicant or respondent in appeals, or in the case of criminal cases, the accused). Once you enter a name and search you will be presented with a screen listing all of the cases with either a plaintiff or defendant with that name. Whichever case you have selected with the mouse will show the full case name at the top of the screen. The search results will also tell you, broadly, the type of case (e.g. civil, bankruptcy, criminal, appeal) and the courthouse where the case is being heard.
Unless you are aware of the case ahead of time you need to divine what it might be from the parties involved. There are some possible clues. For example, a case in which a large company or institution is being sued may have more potential to be interesting than the other way round. A case involving a prominent individual may also be worth looking at. New cases will be more newsworthy than old ones. There are no guarantees, but you can increase you odds of finding an interesting case by taking factors such as these into consideration.
Once you have found a case you think would be interesting, fill out one of the small yellow slips located on the large table in the centre of the room, filling in the details requested. The most important information is the names of the parties and the file number. Make sure you indicated University of King’s College on the “requested by” line.
Take the completed slip to one of the wickets. If the clerk asks you to pay a fee, let them know King’s has a bulk search card at the courthouse (if by any chance the search card is exhausted, contact your instructor). The clerk should bring back the file, unless it is with the judge, in which case it may not be accessible until the judge is done with it.
You can read the file at leisure, but you can’t take it from the office as it is the original copy of all of the documents. You are free to use a smartphone scanner app (e.g. TurboScan for the iPhone) to make copies of the documents. Don’t use just the camera, if you can avoid it, because the quality will not be optimal. You can also use the photocopier located in the court office, but it is expensive. Fred has a portable flatbed scanner that is available for large jobs.
Foreclosures–In Nova Scotia, financial institutions that wish to foreclose on a property for failure to make mortgage payments go through a court-supervised process. There is a bulletin board at the Supreme Court office on which current foreclosure auctions are advertised. You can also search for foreclosures on the same system you use to find civil cases. There is a court file for each foreclosure proceeding.
Search warrants and production orders–Search warrants and production orders, issued under the Criminal Code, permit the police to search a specified location or demand the production of data and/or documents, in pursuit of evidence in a criminal investigation. Persuant to the McIntyre case, these documents are available to the public and media, unless they are specifically sealed by a judge (literally, sealed in an envelope). The media can challenge sealing orders in court. Recently, Nova Scotia courts have made access to the warrants straightforward by allowing the public and media to inspect binders containing the basic information (log) on each warrant, at each provincial courthouse. The provincial courthouse in Halifax is located almost directly across from the public library on Spring Garden Road. In Dartmouth, it is located just off Pleasant Street, near the Dartmouth General Hospital. A complete list of courthouses in Nova Scotia is here. Once you have identified a warrant you would like to access, you can request a copy at the wicket. It may take a bit of time for staff to fetch the warrant(s) from the storage vault. A fee of about seven dollars may apply for the search. At this time, we don’t have a bulk search card for provincial court. Documents available include the application to obtain a warrant, as filled out by the police officer, the warrant itself and, once the warrant is executive, the return, which contains a record of whatever the police found.
Other records available include probate records (wills), trial exhibits and audio recordings of court proceedings. It is a good idea to check with your instructor before requesting these kinds of records, just to make sure you are on the right track. Remember that court staff are busy, so you should not make frivolous requests.