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Commissioner’s remarks will chill public interest lawyers

The BCCLA is raising concerns that comments in the Missing Women Inquiry report could chill public interest lawyers from asking difficult questions during future public inquiries. In the Executive Summary of his report Wally Oppal made pointed criticisms of Cameron Ward, senior lawyer for families of the missing women, for raising concerns that witnesses Ward had asked for had not been called to testify.

During the Inquiry, Ward made repeated requests for particular witnesses to attend, including: David Pickton; Pickton family friend Bev Hyacinthe who worked at the Coquitlam RCMP detachment; and Bill Hiscox, who worked at the Pickton farm; and for the production of particular documents. His requests were refused by the Commission.

Despite refusing Ward’s application for witnesses and documents, the Commissioner suggested that Ward “was repeatedly pressed to produce evidence” of a police whitewash “but was unable to do so.” He said that Ward’s conduct was “unprofessional” and “reckless” and that the Commissioner sympathized with police descriptions of Ward’s clients’ concerns as “ludicrous” and “flippant.” Despite serious allegations of racism and sexism among police officers involved in the investigations, Cameron Ward is the only individual described in the report by the Commissioner as “unprofessional” in his conduct.

“Cameron Ward and his associates worked as hard as anyone else at this Inquiry to get to the bottom of why the Pickton investigation was such a disaster,” said Lindsay Lyster, President of the BCCLA. “His suggestion that the failure to call these critical civilian witnesses and produce this police documentation prevented the full story from being told was grounded in a reasonable understanding of the mandate of this Inquiry, the needs of his clients, and the importance of those witnesses.”

Ward was one of four lawyers working on behalf of non-police and non-government groups, facing, at times, more than twenty police and government lawyers. Ward’s application for additional witnesses and documentation was considered by the Commissioner for months without comment, until the result denying his application was leaked by a senior Commission counsel to the National Post weeks before it was announced at the hearing.

“There were many actors to be scrutinized in this Inquiry whose conduct was worthy of questions about professionalism,” noted Lyster. “To know that the lawyer for the families was the only party the Commissioner could see who was worthy of being described as ‘unprofessional’ is bizarre. The Commissioner knows that lawyers must be free to ask difficult questions and press their clients’ concerns – this rebuke will chill lawyers representing the public interest in future public inquiries.”