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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lawyers pulled from hearing into whether officers break laws

May 13, 2010
Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Star

Attorney General Chris Bentley is being accused of bowing to police pressure following a last-minute decision to pull ministry support from a controversial court case, which will rule whether officers routinely break the law when dealing with the Special Investigations Unit.

Four lawyers, including one of the ministry’s most senior counsel, had been representing SIU director Ian Scott in the proceedings. But late Wednesday, just hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin, the SIU – an arm’s length branch of the ministry – was told to find its own representation. The SIU investigates when a civilian is seriously injured or killed by a police officer.

MPP Peter Kormos, NDP critic for Community Safety and Correctional Services, said it looks as though the Attorney General is succumbing to police pressure.

“Something is seriously amiss here and it should be disturbing to everyone. The police seem to be able to call the shots with respect to the ministry of the attorney general,” he said.

The ministry did not respond to an interview request.

Scott has asked a judge to find that OPP officers and Commissioner Julian Fantino violated a section of the police act pertaining to SIU probes.

In court filings, he has called for an end to the longstanding practice of officers having their notes and comments vetted by a police union lawyer before being interviewed by the SIU. He has also taken issue with the fact that often one lawyer represents all the officers involved, including witnesses. Because lawyers are legally obligated to share information, Scott has argued police officers are not properly being segregated.

The case, which was launched by the families of two mentally-ill men killed by OPP officers last summer, is significant because although it is focusing on these two incidents, the practice of note vetting is common across the province. If the judge agrees with Scott, it will have widespread ramifications for Ontario’s police community.

Early Wednesday, just hours before the lawyers were removed, OPP union president Karl Walsh sent out an internal memo blasting the SIU and “assistance of the Ministry of the Attorney General.”

“We will not be treated as second-class citizens and demand that the established protections already in place not are tampered with,” Walsh wrote. “I ask that you pay particular attention to this issue and encourage you to let your elected representatives know about this unwarranted challenge to our rights and our integrity.”

The memo also revealed that the OPP union, Toronto police union, Police Association of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police have pooled legal resources to fight the application.

Earlier this week, Bentley said that the ministry had not taken a position on the issue, but behind-closed doors, the police community had expressed anger over the legal support of the SIU.

Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack said the move has nothing to do with police pressure. Ministry of the Attorney General lawyers were representing both the SIU and Fantino in the case.

“So there’s an obvious conflict there, this is the right move,” he said.

Kormos countered that the OPP and Fantino are actually part of the solicitor general’s ministry, so if anything, the conflict is with the commissioner.

“It’s very peculiar. The SIU is a part of the Attorney General’s office. It seems to me that the Ministry of the Attorney General should be representing its own body,” he said.

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