Judges rap Wiki-evidence in immigration cases
By Colin Freeze
The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 21, 2010
Federal officials have quoted a questionable source in bids to kick foreigners out of Canada Wikipedia. And judges are not amused.
'Wikipedia is an internet Encyclopedia which anyone with Internet access can edit,' wrote one exasperated Federal Court judge, criticizing Ottawas filings in a case to remove a family of Turkish asylum seekers.
'It is an open-source reference with no editorial control,' scoffed another judge, as he took federal agents to task for consulting Wikipedia before sending an immigrant back to Iran.
As it happens, magistrates often fight the encroachment of dubious encyclopedia entries into courts. After all, many undergrads would be flunked if they quoted Wikipedia in term papers, so why would bureaucrats let such an impeachable source slide into submissions?
Officials say that while federal agencies 'discourage' use of Wikipedia as a reference resource, they dont outright prohibit it. That means, in rare cases, the articles end up in court filings.
This is proving controversial, especially in immigration cases.
Because hundreds of thousands of foreigners flock to Canada each year, federal agents who hope to pick out the bad apples become quick studies in global affairs. Plenty of credible journals help Ottawas officials make sense of the world. But in a pinch theres always the temptation of instantaneous information, which can be found at www.wikipedia.com.
'Wikipedia is specifically discouraged as a reference in decision making, unless it is supported by information from a credible, reliable source,' Karen Shadd, a federal spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe and Mail. Federal screening agents, she added, get training 'on assessing Internet sources.'
Maybe more training is needed. Wikipedia-as-evidence is 'an issue thats arisen in a significant number of cases,' said Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman. His firm has rebutted government citations of Wikipedia articles on at least three occasions.
The issue surfaced in a decision just last month, after a McGill nuclear-science professor from Tehran was ordered to keep out of Canada. Agents citing Wikipedia, among other sources alleged ties between Iranian universities and the theocracys Revolutionary Guards.
That prompted Judge Yves de Montigny to chide: 'This Court has more than once questioned the reliability of Wikipedia.' Finding several lapses, he ordered a new hearing.
To be fair, no one article ever seems to have emerged as the linchpin in any government case, and most citations are peripheral. Defence lawyers also have been known to marshal Wikipedia entries to poke holes in Crown cases.
But this is a slippery slope, especially in cases centring on asylum or deportation, which often amount to life-and-death matters.
The earliest known case arose in 2006, when Federal Court Judge Luc Martineau reprimanded a federal agent for 'capricious findings' in denying refugee status to a Palestinian. The agents transgressions included use of Wikipedia to research the Israeli armys practice of razing houses. Finding a 'breach of the duty of fairness,' the judge ordered a new hearing.
Wikipedia has surfaced at least a dozen times in Federal Court, according to its online database. Yet this is just the tip of the information iceberg.
A broader database, Canlii, suggests Wikipedia has been credited as an authority in well over 100 written decisions in all manner of Canadian courts and tribunals. Many mentions are fleeting asides, but Wikipedias collective wisdom appears to be popping up in civil suits, criminal cases, copyright tribunals, small-claims courts and labour-relations boards.