BCCLA says Oppal’s remarks will chill public interest lawyers

In his report from the Missing Women Inquiry, commissioner Wally Oppal criticizes one of the lawyers who represented the families of the missing women.

Oppal said Cameron Ward accused the police of a conspiracy and a cover-up without presenting evidence to support his claims.

“These allegations are completely unsupported and unsubstantiated by any evidence and there is no air of reality to them, even as a theory,” Oppal wrote in the report, which was released Dec. 17.

“I am not even clear on what theory Mr. Ward is purporting to advance. I am sympathetic with the [Vancouver Police Department’s] submissions that Mr. Ward’s position is ludicrous, flippant, unsupported by evidence and unprofessional. His comments are reckless.”

Neil Chantler, Ward’s co-counsel, says it’s “ironic” Oppal accuses Ward of being unprofessional.

“The only person the commissioner makes an effort to find personally responsible of any misconduct in this report is the lawyer for the families,” he tells Legal Feeds.

“He doesn’t find any police officers to have been personally responsible for failures in the missing women investigation, but he goes out of his way to criticize the conduct of a lawyer for the families, who had a very difficult job in very unbalanced circumstances.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is also raising concerns about Oppal’s comments.

BCCLA president Lindsay Lyster tells Legal Feeds it was striking that Oppal chose to single out Ward and cite him for unprofessional conduct considering all of the questionable conduct involved in the inquiry.

As public interest lawyers, “you have to ask hard questions, you have to take uncomfortable, unpopular positions,” says Lyster.

“And to be singled out in that kind of way for having done something improper in doing that is a real concern to us as an association because we think it will have a chilling effect on public-interest lawyers who are taking those tough kinds of positions.”

She says it was particularly unfair for Oppal to accuse Ward of not presenting any evidence to substantiate his allegations.

“It does seem to us more than a little unfair to criticize a lawyer for not being able to put forward any evidence to support their allegations when they are stymied at every turn and time to gain access to the evidence that might have enabled them to do that,” she says. “[Ward] sought production of documents, he sought to have certain witnesses called, and those things were not permitted by the commissioner.””

Oppal’s report condemns the police for systemic bias against the missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which was key in allowing Pickton to hunt and kill women for years. Missing poor, drug-addicts did not get the investigative focus they deserved, said Oppal. The report also made 63 recommendations, including:

•    Provide funding to existing emergency service centres for women in the sex trade so they can remain open 24 hours a day.
•    Improve public transit connecting northern B.C. communities, especially along Highway 16.
•    Establish a compensation fund for the children of the missing women.
•    Establish a healing fund for the families of the missing women.
•    Appoint two advisers, including one aboriginal elder, to consult with affected parties and help them with the reconciliation process.
•    Establish a Greater Vancouver regional police force.
•    Make prevention of violence against aboriginal women a real priority.
•    Require police to undergo more intensive training on the history and current status of aboriginal people and vulnerable community members.
•    Increase police accountability to communities.
•    Improve police policies on missing people.

B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond announced the government would commit $750,000 to the WISH Drop-In Centre Society. She also said the government is currently discussing a 10-year policing plan and “the concept of what that model might look like deserves further discussion,” she told the media at a press conference on Monday.

Update 4:05 p.m.: BCCLA president Lindsay Lyster's prepared statement replaced with interview comments.

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