The verdict on Privacy Commish Stoddart’s appeal to lawyers

Roe vs. Wade would never have become Roe vs. Wade if it was simply known as R. vs. W.

In a speech to Canadian Bar Association, federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart suggested that the traditional “open court” principle of disclosing information about those involved with the courts should be reconsidered. She also hinted that using an individuals’ initials may be sufficient to educate the public about legal decisions and keep the system accountable to Canadians.

“In law school, we all learned cases by individuals’ names,” said Stoddart, according to a transcript of the speech. “When these cases were accessible only in specialized legal texts, or search engines accessible to legal professionals only, or copies could be picked up by making a trip to the basement records room of a court or tribunal, the concept of practical obscurity always operated in favour of privacy protection and the need-to-know principle.”

Later, the Globe and Mail r eported a press conference in which Stoddart said search engines “distort” the open court rule, implying that all of us will be stuck with a digital paper trail that may be impossible to hide from employers or business associates.

“They will go to social network sites; see what they can find about your past,” she said. “Something may come up there that is irrelevant and doesn’t really need to be known by the world at large. Perhaps something about a family member … That really wasn’t the original purpose.”

Courts do not operate to serve the law, however, but to serve people. And obscuring the identities of those who appear before them does not necessarily serve the need-to-know principle. Who we are determines what we do, and what we do determines when and why we get involved in tribunals or in other cases involving a judge. That doesn’t mean every health-care case and human rights case deserves a front page headline, but not all of those cases would receive much attention anyway.

As for social networking sites, the onus there is on the user to manage their personal settings if they don’t want employers to find anything unsavoury. Whether legal or court-related information winds up in the wrong hands will also depend in part on the evolution of the semantic Web, as well as the semantic capabilities that are integrated into information-retrieval applications developed and deployed by corporate enterprises. Would it also be too na

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