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Friday, July 23, 2010

Top court upholds damages for charter breaches

July 23, 2010
CBC News

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld $5,000 in damages against British Columbia for breaching the charter rights of a Vancouver lawyer strip-searched by police who wrongly thought he was going to throw a pie at Jean Chrétien.

However, in the unanimous landmark ruling Friday, the top court set aside damages of $100 against the City of Vancouver stemming from the seizure of lawyer Alan Cameron Ward's car.

The ruling means that people whose rights have been infringed can seek damages even if they suffered no actual loss and even if the authorities acted in good faith.

Ward was arrested in August 2002, when Vancouver officers thought he was going to throw a pie at Chrétien, then prime minister.

Police placed Ward in handcuffs and escorted him to a police van. A cameraman from a local TV station filmed the arrest, and the footage was later broadcast on the evening news.

Ward was well known within the court system and had built a respected career representing people who have accused police of misconduct, often for free.

He spent several hours in jail and, despite his objections, was strip-searched. He sued both the province and the city.

In an interview with CBC News, Ward said Friday he was relieved that his "eight-year odyssey is finally over" and was pleased with the decision.

'Charter rights really have some meaning'

"It is an important decision that makes it clear that charter rights really have some meaning, and in certain cases when they're violated people can recover a meaningful remedy."

The decision may have application in a variety of contexts, Ward added.

"Recently we've all heard about the G20 arrests, and if people are able to prove that they were wrongly detained or arrested or in some cases perhaps even strip-searched, they may be able to recover monetary compensation, which would also act as a deterrence in certain cases. It may also have application, for example, to people who were wrongly convicted and have faced terms of imprisonment."

Ward recalled the day he was arrested as "very upsetting."

He said he had been willing to settle the whole matter with an acknowledgement by the authorities of a mistake and an apology. Instead the province and city "dug in their heels," Ward said. "They must have spent … hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and legal time fighting this case over the last eight years."

Ward said he is grateful for the top court decision, and it is sufficient in lieu of an apology now.

Officers said they thought Ward was going to throw a pie at then prime minister Jean Chrétien, pictured above, in 2002. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
In the ruling, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote that the strip search violated Ward's charter rights, and compensation was required.

Strip searches 'degrading'

"Strip searches are inherently humiliating and degrading and the charter breach significantly impacted on [Ward's] person and rights. The correction officers’ conduct which caused the breach was also serious," McLachlin wrote.

"With respect to the seizure of the car … the object of compensation is not engaged as [Ward] did not suffer any injury as a result of the seizure."

In January 2007, B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled Ward's charter rights were infringed for wrongful imprisonment, the strip search and the unreasonable search of his vehicle.

The court ordered the province to pay him $5,000 for the strip search and Vancouver to pay for wrongful imprisonment and the unreasonable seizure of his vehicle.

The B.C. Court of Appeal refused to overturn the award, saying the strip search "amounted to a significant charter breach."

The city and the B.C. government appealed the damages to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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