Nfld. & Labrador

What not to wear in court: Why judges ban T-shirts, photos

A defence lawyer in St. John's says judges ask families not to bring message-based clothing and photos into a courtroom to keep proceedings as objective as possible.

Lawyer says it's about maintaining decorum and balancing rights

Lawyer Bob Buckingham says the judge has to maintain decorum in the courtroom, and tries to strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the victim. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

A defence lawyer in St. John's says judges order families not to bring photos and T-shirts with messages on them into a courtroom to keep proceedings as objective as possible.

"We have to make sure that people don't engage in extraneous demonstrations and outbursts within the courtroom," said Bob Buckingham.

"If the judge thinks there is something happening in the courtroom that might influence the administration of justice he or she balances out those various interests and makes a decision."

Family and friends of accident victim Hannah Thorne were told they cannot carry pictures of her into the Harbour Grace courthouse. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

The issue came up twice on Tuesday during court cases involving alleged street racing accidents.

In Harbour Grace, family and friends of Hannah Thorne, 18, killed July 7 in an accident on the New Harbour Barrens, were told by RCMP and sheriff's officers not to show her photo to the accused during a bail hearing.

The judge hearing that case, Justice Bruce Short, had told the family on Monday to leave the photos outside.

In St. John's, the family of Alyssa Davis, 17, killed on Peacekeepers Way in Conception Bay South just before Christmas 2015, were ordered to remove yellow T-shirts with her picture and the slogan "Sunshine Squad." 

The family and friends of Alyssa Davis have designed T-shirts in her memory but were told they couldn't wear them in the courtroom. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

"I'm just speculating at this juncture, that Justice [David] Orr wants to make sure that there is nothing happening in the court that would seem that he's going to be unduly influenced one way or the other," said Buckingham, in reference to the Alyssa Davis case.

Previous experience

While Buckingham is not involved in either of the cases called this week, he did raise the issue during the preliminary hearing for one of his clients — Raymond Stacey, charged with second-degree murder of a co-worker at a Cochrane Pond poultry farm.

When family of the man killed, Clifford Comerford, wore T-shirts to court saying "Justice for Cliffie" in March 2015, Buckingham applied for, and got, a court order to stop it.

"It is intended to influence the judge, and if the matter goes to Supreme Court, it will be an effort to influence the jury. It is not proper, it is inappropriate," he said at the time.

Provincial court judge Lois Skanes ruled in 2015 that T-shirts like this constituted a demonstration, which is not allowed, and were an attempt to influence the court. (CBC)

The wearing of tribute T-shirts also came up during court hearings for Trent Butt, a Harbour Grace man accused of killing his five-year-old daughter Quinn.

When the case was called in July, the judge had supporters of Quinn Butt turn their shirts inside-out so slogans were no longer visible.

It's up to the individual judge, who has authority under Section 486 of the Criminal Code of Canada, to maintain decorum in the courtroom, said Buckingham.

Balancing rights

He said the Criminal Code also protects the right of the accused not to be present in court, an issue that has also angered supporters of Quinn Butt and Alyssa Davis. 

"An accused, depending on what they are charged with, can file a designation with the court to say they don't want to be present, and they want matters to proceed by way of a designation of counsel, and their lawyer can attend for them," said Buckingham.

The court does not have to accept the decision of the accused to waive the right to appear, he said.

"That often happens when a person is entering a plea, a guilty plea or when the matter is set down for sentencing." 

With files from Glenn Payette