(This column was published in the North Shore News on June 2, 2004)
Legal aid system is flawed
By Leo Knight
LAST week Manitoba Justice Minister Gordon Mackintosh released a report recommending the hiring of at least 10 staff lawyers to help defray the cost of legal aid for the province.
But, more striking, were the amendments to the Legal Aid Act introduced in the Manitoba legislature called the Legal Aid Services Society Amendment Act. Specifically, section 12(3) makes members of a criminal organization ineligible. This makes eminent sense.
At the centre of this is the ongoing process there to try five members of the Hells Angels who are charged with 36 charges including gangsterism and conspiracy to commit murder.
The legal aid budget has had an additional $1.1 million added to it this year primarily to deal with this trial. And, that is in addition to the $800,000 added to cover extra sheriffs, escort and transportation and court clerks required to handle the "mega-trial."
And that's just for this year. Legal aid had initially committed to between $2 million and $2.7 million in total to mount a defence for the bikers.
In a media interview, Mackintosh said, "It's expensive justice, but these (multi-accused trials) are important prosecutions across the country."
Indeed they are.
But then the resulting public outcry made the justice minister rethink how this was being handled.
In November, Tory justice critic Gerald Hawranik took the NDP government of Gary Doer to task on the subject. Hawranik reportedly stated that it has been proven that the Hells Angels are a well-known criminal organization that are making millions of dollars on things like prostitution and the drug trade. He went on to say that it's time for the Doer government to get tough on the Hells Angels and ensure legal aid funding is available for those that it was intended to assist, not criminal organizations.
In February, in reaction, deputy attorney general Bruce MacFarlane ordered a special investigation into the assets of the bikers. You'd almost think this might have been done before the povince agreed to have legal aid fund the defence. But, better late than never I suppose.
The report was handed to the directors of the Legal Aid Society and although they won't reveal details, one supposes its content was what spurred Mackintosh to amend the act so that merely maintaining membership in such a criminal organization was enough to deny legal aid.
Given the wealth of the Hells Angels one might question what took so long. But, the test for legal aid eligibility was a simple declaration of assets and last year's T-4. And this, the Hells Angels were able to play to a fare-thee-well. Considering the bulk of their income comes from illicit ventures, oddly enough, their wealth and income isn't represented on T-4 statements.
Equally, given the proceeds of crime legislation and the misguided fear of the tax man (I say misguided because this is the simplest tool to go after organized crime with and, in Canada, the tax man is content to chase after me and thee and ignore the organized crime groups), the Hells Angels tend to use fronts for their businesses and other assets. So, a simple declaration may say "no assets" and a T-4 may show no income whatsoever.
The system devoid of common sense says to step right up and get the taxpayer to pay for your defence on conspiracy to import millions of dollars of cocaine Mr. Biker, for apparently you cannot afford your own defence.
Well, no longer in Manitoba.
One wonders how long it will be before the rest of the provinces catch on to this no-brainer.
In British Columbia, it took a Supreme Court justice to separate the wheat from the chaff in the Air India trial and deny legal aid to millionaire accused Ripudaman Singh Malik. The system would have allowed it, fortunately, the judge did not.
The problem with all of this is that when the gangsters are sucking up millions in taxpayer-funded legal aid, the people who really need it can't get it. As an example, a year ago, before Mackintosh had his epiphany, Legal Aid Manitoba announced it had to scale back its services for divorces, guardianship and child support, services typically used by single mothers trying to fight a custody battle against a wealthier ex-spouse.
Murdering, thieving gangsters? No problem, who would you like to defend you? Single moms trying to hang onto their kids? Sorry, there's no more money.
The society had a million dollar deficit. Coincidentally, just about the amount of money it spent in that year on the legal defence for the Hells Angels.
And there are other issues with the way legal aid is dispensed in Canada. This month in Toronto, Kaneez Fatima and Mohammad Arsal Khan were being sentenced for their second and first degree convictions, respectively, in the murder of their daughter, five-year-old Farah.
The case took four years to get to trial and involved to a greater or lesser degree over the course of time, seven defence lawyers and an extraordinary series of tactics and manipulations. Fortunately to no avail and convictions were justly registered. But, what did all that defence cost?
Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford tried to find out. She couldn't. In fact, due to so-called privacy concerns, Legal Aid Ontario wouldn't even confirm they were involved. Blatchford noted: "How can taxpayers be assured they're getting a bang for their legal aid buck when they can't even have a gander at what they bought, let alone learn how much it cost?"
No matter which way you look at it, the legal aid system in this country is fundamentally flawed.
One province, Manitoba, has taken the first small step to rectify at least one great gap. Who shall be next?
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