Winnipeg trial witness suffers ‘ongoing’ threats after court named them despite publication ban, suit alleges

A witness in a Winnipeg criminal trial who is suing a judge and the provincial government says their ability to live a normal life was “destroyed” after the court allegedly identified them online in spite of a publication ban.

The witness, who is not identified in the statement of claim filed at the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on Monday, says in the suit that their name was published in a written decision on the court’s website.

That decision by Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Kenneth Champagne was published shortly after he delivered it in court last year and contained sensitive details about the witness, such as their full name, details of their testimony and interactions with the accused, the suit alleges.

Being identified in connection to the case has led to threats against the witness, as well as multiple violent physical and verbal attacks both personally and to their businesses, causing them to flee Manitoba, the suit claims.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. A statement of defence has not been filed, and a provincial spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Witness told identity ‘indefinitely’ protected: suit

Publication bans are court orders put in place to stop the public and the media from reporting certain details of an otherwise public court proceeding, often to protect identities or preserve the fairness of another upcoming trial.

The witness’s suit says they were subpoenaed to attend the trial, and the court confirmed to them at the trial’s beginning that a publication ban would be in place due to the nature of the proceedings, as well as the risks that they would likely be exposed to by participating.

The witness says in the suit that they were assured by both Champagne and the court that a publication ban would “indefinitely” prevent the court from publishing the judgment on its website, or anywhere publicly, and that any judgment released by Champagne would be edited.

However, Champagne’s decision became the first result for Internet searches of the witness’s name after it was published online, the suit says.

The witness then told victim services, which informed the Crown prosecutor’s office that the publication ban was breached and asked for the decision to be removed.

“The decision was eventually taken down, but due to it being published on the Internet, any interested parties were able to view and retain copies of the decision for the period while it was published,” the suit says.

‘Irreparable harm’ caused: suit

The court’s alleged identification of the witness to the public has caused them “irreparable harm,” the suit says, as they’ve suffered anxiety, depression and a general decline in their physical health due to “distress, annoyance and embarrassment.”

The witness has been subject to harassment and abuse due to the publication of their identity in Champagne’s decision, such as violence and the threat of violence as well as damages to their property and business interests, the suit claims.

“These activities by third parties now aware of the [witness’s] identity are ongoing,” the suit says.

The witness has also suffered financially, losing their source of income after having to close businesses due to active threats, according to the suit.

The witness says in the suit that they relied on the publication ban and Champagne’s reassurance to protect their identity.

The province and the court acknowledged that they became aware of the breach of the witness’s privacy, but have refused and/or failed to give “any meaningful response” to their concerns or issues, the suit claims.

Champagne and the province breached a duty of care owed to the witness to protect their identity, and the witness had a reasonable expectation for them to do so, the suit says.

The witness is suing for general damages, as well as special damages to be determined in court, the suit says.

The lawyer representing the witness in the suit did not provide comment to CBC on Wednesday.