Top court orders files tied to Sherman estate unsealed, citing public interest

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that documents relating to the estate of murdered billionaire couple Honey and Barry Sherman should be unsealed.

In a unanimous decision handed down Friday, the court ruled that the media may access files pertaining to who would inherit the couple’s money and assets.

The estate sought to have the files sealed, arguing that the parties concerned should be spared from further intrusion into their privacy and that the release of the documents could put their safety at risk.

The seal was granted by a judge, however the Toronto Star went to court to challenge it, arguing that it violated the principle of open courts, as well as their constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

While the Ontario Superior Court of Justice upheld the seal, the paper appealed the decision and won.

The estate appealed to the Supreme Court to maintain the seal in a case that was heard last October. Bell Media and a number of other media outlets took part in the case as interveners.

In the ruling handed down Friday, the Supreme Court said the estate failed to prove that the safety of those associated with the documents would be at risk if they were unsealed.

Justice Nicholas Kasirer wrote that the application judge’s conclusion as to the existence of a serious risk to safety was “mere speculation” and was not based on objective evidence obtained from Toronto police.

The court said that privacy concerns can justify a sealing order if the human dignity of the individual concerned is at serious risk. However the court found the information contained in the estate documents “is not highly sensitive” and did not meet the threshold to warrant an exception to the open court principle.

“It is understood that this (the open court system) allows for public scrutiny which can be the source of inconvenience and even embarrassment to those who feel that their engagement in the justice system brings intrusion into their private lives,” Kasirer wrote. “But this discomfort is not, as a general matter, enough to overturn the strong presumption that the public can attend hearings and that court files can be consulted and reported upon by the free press.”

While the judgment was released Friday morning, the estate documents were not immediately available and it is not yet clear what they say.

DOCUMENTS MAY SHED LIGHT ON FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

While the court found that the information contained in the estate files “does not reveal anything particularly private about the affected individuals,” it may shed some light on the relationship between Honey and Barry and those mentioned in their estates.

“At its highest, the information in these files will reveal something about the relationship between the deceased and the affected individuals, in that it may reveal to whom the deceased entrusted the administration of their estates and those who they wished or were deemed to wish to be beneficiaries of their property at death,” Kasirer wrote in the decision.

The court found that some basic person information such as addresses might be revealed, along with information that might cause some “discomfort” but nothing that would seriously damage anyone mentioned.

Kasirer wrote that while he is “mindful” of the circumstances, the fact of the murders does not change the effect of unsealing the documents.

“However, even in this context, none of this information provides significant insight into who they are as individuals, nor would it provoke a fundamental change in their ability to control how they are perceived by others,” he wrote. “The fact of being linked through estate documents to victims of an unsolved murder is not in itself highly sensitive.”

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES

The billionaire couple was found dead in their Toronto home on Old Colony Road in December 2017 by a realtor showing the property.

They were found in a semi-seated position on the deck of their indoor pool, hanging by belts from a railing. Autopsies revealed that both Honey and Barry died of ligature neck compression.

Police sources initially said the case was being considered as a murder-suicide, but police said several weeks later that they were investigating the deaths as a double homicide.

Former police chief Mark Saunders told CP24 in February 2018 that police were “aggressively” looking at “an international lens” in the early months of the investigation, but he did not elaborate and there have been few updates from police since.

The family hired its own private investigator to probe the murders, but the private investigation came to an end in December 2019.

Toronto police have said that they continue to investigate the killings.

In November 2020, police confirmed that there was a person of interest in the case who had been identified but not arrested.

Barry Sherman was the founder of generic drugmaker Apotex Inc. and the couple was among Canada’s most generous philanthropists.

They are survived by their four children.