A prominent Alberta criminal defence lawyer has successfully sued the Edmonton Police Association for $50,000 after one of its former directors wrote a defamatory article about him.
Queen’s Bench Justice Avril Inglis ruled in lawyer Thomas Engel’s favour after Engel brought a lawsuit against the police union for an article posted on its website in 2008. Engel said the piece damaged his reputation as a lawyer, as it accused him of incompetence and dishonesty, and implied he had a vendetta against the police.
Engel’s practice regularly involves policing issues. He often defends people who claim to have been wronged by police and has not shied away form making complaints about alleged police wrongdoing to the Law Enforcement Review Board.
Engel believes that no other lawyer has made as many appearances at the LERB and that 75 per cent of the appeals before that board originated in his office.
Through his role as the chairman of the police committee of the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, Engel had been vocally critical of the way police were handling complaints against their members.
Not surprisingly, Engel says he encountered some opposition from police officers and their union.
“This is the story of retaliation that was happening from the likes of the Edmonton Police Association and some of their members,” he says. “It’s a time-honoured tactic, which is to try to discredit your critics. And they were doing so publicly.”
The piece, written by a former director of the union, Bill Newton, named Engel and his law office. The piece questioned whether appeals Engel had brought to the LERB were “frivolous and vexatious.”
After he discovered the article, Engel contacted the EPA to complain, but the piece remained on the union’s website. He says he tried to resolve the issue but did not get anywhere, so he decided litigation was the only way to go.
He says that there had been some negative comments made about him in the press that were unjustified, and that when the article was published, the situation had escalated to a level that he felt he had to do something.
When Engel brought his lawsuit, Newton and the police association claimed the article was not about the lawyer and was not defamatory.
But the judge found that the article was directed at Engel and that “even a non-lawyer would easily lower their opinion of Mr. Engel after reading the article.”
Inglis found the article defamatory in fact, opinion and tone, and that it repeatedly defamed Engel professionally.
She also noted that the integrity of the justice system and each of its members is of “paramount importance” to all citizens.
“Those involved in serving the justice system — counsel, the judiciary, the police and related societies — should show due respect to all other members and ensure that careless aspersions and resentful complaints are not hastily strewn about,” she wrote in the decision, in Engel v. Edmonton Police Association.
“Defamatory comments of those who work in the justice system from within the justice system are particularly more persuasive than the same complaints made from an outside source. I include police officers, agencies and associations in that group.”
Daniel Stachnik, the lawyer representing Newton and the police association, did not respond to a request for comment.