Saturday, January 25, 2014

Quebec Court Shields Confidential Interview from Police

A Quebec court has quashed a search warrant for an interview given in confidence by accused killer Luka Magnotta to University of Ottawa researchers. The court agrees with the professors that "the public interest in protecting researcher-participant confidentiality in general, and in the specific circumstances of this case, clearly outweighs what minimal contribution, if any, the release of the seized items will make to the prosecution of the accused in the criminal proceeding." (2)

[Parent c. R., 2014 QCCS 132. h/t Will C. van den Hoonaard]

In reaching this result, the court notes that

The granting and maintenance of the promise of confidentiality to the participants as a condition of participation in the Research Project was an essential part of the SSHRC funding approval, the approval of the REB at the University of Ottawa, the training of the interviewers, the recruitment literature (recruitment flyer, recruitment letter) sent to potential participants, and the consent form signed by the interviewers for the participants. Without the promise of confidentiality and anonymity to participants, the Research project would not have been approved by the REB at the University of Ottawa, and could not have proceeded." (16)

So should we count this as a win for the REB system? It's not clear. Certainly the court needed evidence that the researchers were serious professionals whose relationship with secret sources "in the opinion of the community ought to be sedulously fostered." (20)

On the other hand, the REB earlier proved unable to persuade the university to pay for the legal representation in this case. And the court seems willing to accept a broad range of evidence that researchers need confidentiality to conduct their valuable work. So perhaps an alternative ethics system, one not based on prior review, would have produced the same result.

For background on the case, see Cockburn, Neco. “Magnotta Ruling Protects 'cornerstone' of Research: Profs.” Ottawa Citizen, January 22, 2014.

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