Supreme Court: Law does not deny access to materials of session in camera
The Supreme Court has denied a challenge by Ekspress Media regarding the decision of Tallinn Circuit Court to hear the case of former ski coach Mati Alaver in camera. The Supreme Court's Criminal Law Review Chamber found that access to materials can be applied for after criminal proceedings have been concluded also if the case was heard in camera.
In the criminal matter that found Mati Alaver guilty of a doping-related offense, Ekspress Meedia challenged Harju County Court's decision to hear the case in camera after the ruling entered into force.
The plaintiff's counsel Oliver Nääs found that the decision violated freedom of the press as the case having been heard in camera served as the court's reasoning for refusing to share the contents of Alaver's file with journalists after the case was concluded.
The Supreme Court agreed with the circuit court in that the media house had no grounds for challenging the session being held in camera as the decision did not limit its eventual access to the file.
The Criminal Law Chamber explained that an application to access files after criminal proceedings have been concluded needs to be processed fundamentally and independently of whether the session was held in camera or not. The court must check whether there are grounds for restricting access to parts or all of the file when deliberating on the application to access it. Legal grounds for studying criminal or court files could arise primarily from the Personal Data Protection Act, Public Information Act or the Archives Act. If necessary, the court needs to weigh whether the applicant's justified interest to access the file outweighs rights and interests speaking against allowing the file to be accessed.
If the county court refuses to allow access to the court file, such a decision can be challenged in administrative court.
Similarly to what has been concluded in several Supreme Court Administrative Law Chamber decisions in the past, the Criminal Law Chamber directed the legislator's attention to the need for more clarity in the procedure of accessing criminal case files.
No decision yet in second dispute
Harju County Court's refusal to allow publications to access Alaver's criminal file has also been challenged in administrative case 3-19-2317 filed by ERR journalist Taavi Eilat. Unlike Ekspress Meedia that challenged the decision to hear the case in camera, ERR challenged the court's refusal to allow access to the file. The dispute is still in progress.
The position of the prosecution attached to the Supreme Court's decision is also interesting in this context. "The Prosecutor's Office finds that Harju County Court's reasoning for refusing to publish case materials might not be valid."
Also, the Supreme Court's position according to which "the chamber is not currently deciding whether the county court's decisions from October 21, 2019 is legal nor whether access to the case file has been restricted with good reason."
Harju County court found Mati Alaver guilty of inducing athletes to use doping behind closed doors in November of last year. A deal made with the Office of the Prosecutor General saw Alaver handed a conditional prison sentence of one year with a probationary period of 18 months. Alaver (65) did not plead guilty. The ruling was not appealed.
Harju County Court denied journalists access to Alaver's case file, giving as the reason that it includes delicate personal information of witnesses and because a relevant investigation is still ongoing in Austria.
The decision to restrict access to the file has been challenged by several media outlets using different legal tactics. Some found that because criminal proceedings are over, access to Alaver's case can only be challenged in administrative court, which course of action was taken, for example, by Taavi Eilat.
Other lawyers believe Alaver's file can be accessed through criminal proceedings. Oliver Nääs filed a corresponding claim on behalf of Ekspress Meedia. Nääs moved for a new deliberation in Alaver's case regarding proceedings being held in camera.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski