Wikipedia and the Quality of Evidence in Legal Cases

In family law cases, decisions depend greatly upon the quality of the information and evidence before the court. Often the law is simple – for instance, for anything relating to children, the test is what is in their best interests. Or, the law is vague – for instance, for spousal support the court considers:

  • your assets and your spouse’s assets
  • your income and your spouse’s income
  • your age and your spouse’s age
  • your health and your spouse’s health
  • the standard of living when you lived with your spouse
  • the ability of your spouse to become self-sufficient
  • the contribution your spouse has made to your career
  • the economic hardship suffered by your spouse arising from the marriage

If that’s not vague, try and figure out how much spousal support you need to pay based on that!

Therefore, I was greatly surprised to find the Wikipedia is being used in the United States (and in Germany in one case) as a reliable source of information. This is despite the fact that Wikipedia is edited by volunteers, and you can pretty much put anything into it that you want.

For instance, recently someone planted an untrue story in the Wikipedia that someone involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and Bob. The person was anonymous and untraceable, of course.

While the Wikipedia is a great place to quickly obtain background information on a subject, it should hardly be relied upon as authoritative in a court of law, especially given that entries can be made by virtually anonymously, so that there’s no way of judging credibility.

Out of curiousity, I checked whether Canadian courts had relied on the Wikipedia. I found 4 such instances:

The R. v. Y.N., a criminal law case involving various property and weapons offences. In that case, the judge was examining the meaning of the phrase “reasonable explanation.” The judge referred to the “Google Dictionary” [I don’t think such a thing exists…], to the Wikipedia and to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary in helping to define the term. Given that the judge is cross-checking several sources, relying on the Wikipedia is hardly damaging in this case, but one has to wonder why the judge would choose to rely on the Wikipedia over, say, the Oxford English Dictionary.

The second case is Gillet c. Arthur. The case is in French, so my analysis has to be somewhat limited. At issue seems to be the definition of the word “shock jock” in a policy of insurance for a radio station, which did not apply to claims arising out of the services of a “shock jock.” The judge looked up the definition of “shock jock” in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as well as the Wikipedia. Given the modernness of the term, the use of the Wikipedia may well be merited, given that the judge did cross-check the reference with a reputable dictionary.

The third case is Almrei v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), an immigration case. In this case, it appears that a Delegate of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration had before her in evidence an article from the Wikipedia on “Maher Arar.” It’s unclear what weight was put on this article, or even how it was used, but the Delegate had scores of other articles as well, including reports from professors, major newspapers and various government departments. So, hopefully the article was considered in light of all the other documentation before the Delegate, which seems to me to be the proper use of such information.

The final case is Bajraktaraj v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), another immigration case. In this case, the applicant present to the court an article from the Wikipedia in support of his case. The court said that the Wikipedia article’s quality “did not impress” and stated that it “provided no references for its content.” Bingo. That’s exactly right.

In short, I’m glad to say that the Wikipedia has so far had little impact on Canadian jurisprudence. Justice Mosley’s comments in [i]Bajraktaraj[/i] are exactly right and exactly how evidence from the Wikipedia should be treated in the courts.

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