June 11, 2021
Sherman Estate v Donovan 2021 SCC 25
A prominent couple was found dead in their home. Their deaths had no apparent explanation and generated intense public interest. To this day, the identity and motive of those responsible remain unknown, and the deaths are being investigated as homicides. The estate trustees sought to stem the intense press scrutiny prompted by the events by seeking sealing orders of the probate files. Initially granted, the sealing orders were challenged by Kevin Donovan, of the Toronto Star.
The application judge sealed the probate files, concluding that the harmful effects of the sealing orders were substantially outweighed by the salutary effects on privacy and physical safety interests. The Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the appeal and lifted the sealing orders. It concluded that the privacy interest advanced lacked a public interest quality, and that there was no evidence of a real risk to anyone’s physical safety.
The SCC dismissed the appeal.
The SCC established a 3 part test for discretionary limits on presumptive court openness.
In order to succeed, the person asking a court to exercise discretion in a way that limits the open court presumption must establish that:
(1) court openness poses a serious risk to an important public interest;
(2) the order sought is necessary to prevent this serious risk to the identified interest because reasonably alternative measures will not prevent this risk; and,
(3) as a matter of proportionality, the benefits of the order outweigh its negative effects.
Only where all three of these prerequisites have been met can a discretionary limit on openness — for example, a sealing order, a publication ban, an order excluding the public from a hearing, or a redaction order — properly be ordered. This test applies to all discretionary limits on court openness, subject only to valid legislative enactments (Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. v. Ontario, 2005 SCC 41,  2 S.C.R. 188, at paras. 7 and 22).
…in order to preserve the integrity of the open court principle, an important public interest concerned with the protection of dignity should be understood to be seriously at risk only in limited cases. Nothing here displaces the principle that covertness in court proceedings must be exceptional. Neither the sensibilities of individuals nor the fact that openness is disadvantageous, embarrassing or distressing to certain individuals will generally on their own warrant interference with court openness (MacIntyre, at p. 185; New Brunswick, at para. 40; Williams, at para. 30; Coltsfoot Publishing Ltd. v. Foster-Jacques, 2012 NSCA 83, 320 N.S.R. (2d) 166, at para. 97). These principles do not preclude recognizing the public character of a privacy interest as important when it is related to the protection of dignity. They merely require that a serious risk be shown to exist in respect of this interest in order to justify, exceptionally, a limit on openness, as is the case with any important public interest under Sierra Club. As Professors Sylvette Guillemard and Séverine Menétrey explain, [TRANSLATION] “[t]he confidentiality of the proceedings may be justified, in particular, in order to protect the parties’ privacy . . . . However, the jurisprudence indicates that embarrassment or shame is not a sufficient reason to order that proceedings be held in camera or to impose a publication ban” (Comprendre la procédure civile québécoise (2nd ed. 2017), at p. 57).
The test for discretionary limits on court openness imposes on the applicant the burden to show that the important public interest is at serious risk. Recognizing that privacy, understood in reference to dignity, is only at serious risk where the information in the court file is sufficiently sensitive erects a threshold consistent with the presumption of openness. This threshold is fact specific. It addresses the concern, noted above, that personal information can frequently be found in court files and yet finding this sufficient to pass the serious risk threshold in every case would undermine the structure of the test. By requiring the applicant to demonstrate the sensitivity of the information as a necessary condition to the finding of a serious risk to this interest, the scope of the interest is limited to only those cases where the rationale for not revealing core aspects of a person’s private life, namely protecting individual dignity, is most actively engaged.
To summarize, the important public interest in privacy, as understood in the context of the limits on court openness, is aimed at allowing individuals to preserve control over their core identity in the public sphere to the extent necessary to preserve their dignity. The public has a stake in openness, to be sure, but it also has an interest in the preservation of dignity: the administration of justice requires that where dignity is threatened in this way, measures be taken to accommodate this privacy concern. Although measured by reference to the facts of each case, the risk to this interest will be serious only where the information that would be disseminated as a result of court openness is sufficiently sensitive such that openness can be shown to meaningfully strike at the individual’s biographical core in a manner that threatens their integrity. Recognizing this interest is consistent with this Court’s emphasis on the importance of privacy and the underlying value of individual dignity, but is also tailored to preserve the strong presumption of openness.