B.C. seeks cash for Pickton legal costs

Kim Bolan
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, November 16, 2002

The B.C. government needs Ottawa's help to pay for the prosecution of accused serial killer Robert William Pickton, Attorney-General Geoff Plant said Friday.

CREDIT: Chuck Study, Canadian Press Files

Investigators sift through dirt on a conveyor belt at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam. The complicated case will be expensive to prosecute and B.C. wants help from Ottawa to pay the bills.

A week after his ministry tentatively agreed to fund Pickton's defence team, Plant said he wants an agreement similar to the one negotiated for the Air India trial where the federal government pays 50 per cent of the prosecution costs.

Plant said it is too early to know what the bill will be in the Pickton case.

But without an agreement similar to the one in the Air India case, the entire legal aid system in B.C. could be stretched beyond the breaking point, he said.

"I think the cost burden is such that there is a risk of compromising our ability to discharge our other legal aid obligations and I think that is a reason to go ask the federal government to help," Plant said in an interview.

The 53-year-old Pickton is charged with killing 15 women who were on the list of 63 missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The Air India agreement, which was signed last March and is up this spring, commits Ottawa to paying $8.2 million in 2001-2002 and $15.3 million in 2002-2003 to help cover the Air India prosecutors, defence lawyers and witness transportation.

Plant said Ottawa is obligated to help because it has cut its contributions to legal aid in B.C. by half in the last decade.

"Over the course of the last 13 years, the federal government has moved from being a 54-per-cent partner in legal aid to a 26-per-cent partner," Plant said.

Using a 1988 Ontario court of appeal decision called Rowbotham as precedent, Pickton's legal team argued successfully for government aid even though Pickton has assets and was denied legal aid under the usual criteria.

The three defendants in the Air India case also received government funding after filing Rowbotham applications, arguing they deserved assistance because of the complexity and magnitude of their case, despite their assets.

The B.C. government has found itself increasingly having to respond to "Rowbotham" requests, according to statistics provided to The Vancouver Sun.

Just six years ago, there was one application for Rowbotham funding. Last year, there were 81 such cases, with the annual amount being spent by the B.C. government doubling from $600,000 four years ago to $1.2 million last year.

And that $1.2 million figure does not include Air India, expected to be the most complex and longest criminal prosecution in Canadian history, or Pickton, which is shaping up as a close second with the preliminary hearing alone expected to last five months.

"People see those two cases on the front pages of the newspapers, but the problem exists and would exist without those two cases because over the past half dozen years, the number of Rowbotham applications has grown and the challenge around ensuring that we can find appropriate counsel in these complex cases has grown to the point where we need to have a more structured approach to how we resolve these issues," Plant said.

That is why the B.C. government is working on a policy to be finalized in the next few months that will lay out the rules for applying for Rowbotham funding.

Plant said he raised the issue of assistance in the Pickton case at a meeting attended by federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon last week.

The Air India trial, in which the defendants are accused of murdering 331 people in an international bombing conspiracy, is due to go to trial next March 31.

Plant agreed that one of the reasons the federal government is contributing financially to that prosecution is that it is international in scope, while the Pickton case is more local.

"Although it appears to be a more local kind of criminal case, the fact is the investigation has been hugely expensive and I think the trial promises to be relatively complex," Plant said.

He also said B.C. is the worst off of all the provinces in Canada in terms of the percentage of federal contribution to its legal aid.

A complex funding formula caps the money Ottawa chips in, Plant said, meaning B.C. does not get as much as provinces like New Brunswick, where the federal government is paying 64 per cent of legal aid costs, or Quebec where the federal contribution is 45 per cent.

"We have identified the problem. We are still working on designing on a final solution," Plant said. 

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun



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