Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Jan 17, 2011)

A man with few equals

By Bob Cooper

Herbert Arnold Dimitri Oliver



Joseph Wambaugh once said that cops are the best story tellers and I agree.   I’ve met dozens of great ones and been doubled over laughing with tears streaming down my cheeks in squad rooms and bars from Montreal to Hong Kong over the years but one of the best I ever met wasn’t a cop but rather the late Mr. Justice H.A.D. Oliver who passed away last Friday.

Mr. Oliver was a legend in the legal profession in Vancouver and one thing that set him apart was style and presence.  He had a mind like a steel trap, brilliant courtroom skills, and was an outstanding orator.  His clipped British accent and deliberate, measured cadence kept judges and jurors hanging on his every word.  When he walked into a courtroom judges would interrupt the proceedings to acknowledge his appearance.  He was always immaculately dressed and while other lawyers in the 70s were driving Cadillac’s and BMWs, Mr. Oliver would arrive at the courthouse in his Rolls Royce.  He was like a character out of Hollywood except he was the real thing.

I got to know Mr. Oliver personally when I was assigned to the Asian Organized Crime Squad in the mid 80s.  His firm represented some of Chinatown’s major gangsters including the Viet Ching which made some previous gangs look like amateurs.  I went to court on numerous occasions where Mr. Oliver was defence counsel with his junior at the time, Ian Donaldson, who has gone on to become one of Vancouver’s leading defence lawyers.  Beneath the style, believe me, there was substance and I learned very quickly that if you’re about to be cross examined by H.A.D. Oliver you’d better have brought your ‘A’ game.  On each and every occasion, I learned something from those cross examinations and final arguments and it made me a better policeman.  Outside the courtroom we would chat and he would give me pointers on testifying and illustrate them with stories drawn from a vast array of his actual experiences over decades ranging from his 6 years in the British Army in WWll to trials at the Old Bailey and his work on the Tupper Commission probing corruption in the Vancouver City Police in the 1950s.   I recall marveling that those were only the ones he could talk about.

In one case, where we all thought the evidence was overwhelming, even Mr. Oliver was preparing his clients to expect a guilty verdict and some time in prison.  When the judge acquitted them no one was more surprised than Mr. Oliver.  Outside the courtroom he put a hand on my shoulder and told me that if it was any consolation they were going to get a whopping big bill.

When Mr. Oliver was appointed to the BC Supreme Court his firm held a very lavish party in their Hornby Street offices.   My partner, Peter Ditchfield, and I were among only 4 police officers invited.   As always he was a most gracious host, and saw to it that no one went home thirsty.

While he was on the bench some of my colleagues would criticize him from time to time for his liberal interpretation of the Charter.  While I won’t say I agreed with all of his decisions I would put them in the context of his wartime service and suggest that the principles of freedom and liberty of the individual versus the power of the state are ones held more dearly by those who have actually fought to preserve them.  

A few years ago my brother Paul, who is an EHS Paramedic, picked Mr. Oliver up after he tripped over some loose curbstone on Arbutus Street.   Paul recognized him right away and was trying to get an oxygen mask on him and take vital signs but Mr. Oliver was having none of it and regaled him with tales all the way to VGH.  Paul phoned me afterward and said “Man, that guy tells some great stories.”  Ever the gentleman, none of them involved any of my courtroom screw-ups.

Some of us are lucky enough to get a few honors in our time on the job.  There are the official ones involving a presentation in the Chief’s office, a handshake, and a photograph.  Then there are the unofficial ones.  Simple things like someone stopping you on the street to thank you for something nice you did for them on a call that you’d long forgotten about or a father expressing his gratitude for steering his son away from gang life.   One day I was testifying in a trial in which we were going to tender a document to link the accused to the crime until I realized I had brought a copy rather than the original.  The judge adjourned the proceedings for 15 minutes to allow us to try to locate the original otherwise the trial would have to be adjourned for weeks.  In the hallway Mr. Oliver asked me if I had compared the original document to the copy and whether they were the same and I told him that they were.  He could have made an argument under the Best Evidence Rule insisting on the original and would have been completely within his rights to do so.  Instead, he walked over to the prosecutor and told him that if it were any other squad he’d have made the argument but, referring to myself and my squad mates, he said “where these gentlemen are concerned, their word is good enough for me” and that the trial could proceed.

It wasn’t the type of honor that I could touch or mount on the wall but it meant more to me than the ones that I could.

Mr. Oliver lived long and lived large.  He had a fuller life with more accomplishments that almost anyone I’ve ever known.  If you saw his obituary you’d know that brevity prevents me from even attempting to list them here and I’ve got a feeling that the only thing St. Peter will ask of him is for one of his stories.      


Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.


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