Do prison inmates have the right to conduct legal research online?

The court thought it was important that the inmate have access to recent cases, given the complexity of criminal law.
The court thought it was important that the inmate have access to recent cases, given the complexity of criminal law. (Photo: iStock)

The right to retain a lawyer without delay is a fundamental right every Canadian has under the Charter.

What happens though when a prison inmate doesn’t want to retain a lawyer and instead chooses to represent him or herself, does the inmate have the right to access to online legal materials?

The Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta thought the inmate in this case should have had access to online legal material.

The inmate was charged with several offences in relation to bank robberies and has been in custody on these charges since 2013. During that time, he has gone through several lawyers but dissatisfied with all of them, chose to represent himself in court.

In order to do that, he required access to legal materials, including online legal search engines, which the prison didn’t provide him with, though they gave him with access to a laptop and some out-of-date legal materials. Inmates are provided with little to no Internet access due to security issues.

Due to the lack of Internet access, he brought his case in front of the court, arguing that his charter rights were violated, because he needed “full access to legal materials, processes and any case law the defendants may require to make full answer and defence.”

The court agreed with him and found that his current access was inadequate.

It was not just that the inmate was representing himself that convinced the court that he needed better access to legal materials but also that he actually showed that he could properly use the materials to defend himself in a “meaningful and useful manner.”

An inmate has the right to reasonable access to information and in this particular case the court believed that reasonable access included Internet access to the CanLII website, which is a free legal website with updated cases and legislation.

The court thought it was important that the inmate have access to recent cases, given the complexity of criminal law.

One takeaway from this case is that access to justice is increasingly reliant on Internet access.

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