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Commissioner Wally Oppal arrives for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver on Jan. 19, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Commissioner Wally Oppal arrives for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver on Jan. 19, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ROBERT MATAS

Crosscheck: Purse strings drawn tight for Missing Women inquiry Add to ...

"The Attorney-General does not believe that public funding of multiple teams of lawyers for inquiry participants other than the families of missing and murdered women is a higher priority than such other matters." - David Loukidelis, deputy attorney-general, in correspondence with inquiry head Wally Oppal

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With a lengthy string of funding announcements since becoming B.C. Premier in March, Christy Clark has left an impression that the government is wealthy enough to do whatever the Liberals want, but budgets are tight for initiatives they do not support.

Mr. Oppal has been told twice that the government is not prepared to provide funding for lawyers for groups representing women and first nations at the Missing Women Inquiry hearings slated to begin in October. The legal bill was expected to be around $1.5-million.

It's a question of priorities, Mr. Loukidelis stated in a letter to Mr. Oppal on behalf of Attorney-General Barry Penner. Mr. Loukidelis listed five priorities for the Attorney-General's Ministry that are ostensibly more important: administrative staffing for the courthouses, sheriffs to ensure security in the courtroom, Crown prosecutors, Provincial Court judges and salary increases for the judges.

Those issues have made headlines in recent months. B.C.'s court system is ailing after years of self-inflicted wounds - budget cuts and closing down courthouses, jails and legal-aid offices.

Courts do not have enough sheriffs to allow trials to proceed as scheduled. The government tried to introduce a system of roving sheriffs responsible for a number of courtrooms at the same time. But some judges did not feel safe enough in their courtrooms without a sheriff and they postponed proceedings, forcing a government retreat on the cutback.

Shortages of prosecutors and judges have led to lengthy delays in trials and, in many cases, the staying of charges. Provincial Court judges stayed charges in 72 cases last year following unusually long delays before the charges were heard in court, according to media reports. The rate of cases tossed out as a result of delays is accelerating this year.

The government has also been grappling with judges' pay. An independent commission recommended increases that would cost $7-million. The government responded by freezing judges' salaries. If those increases had gone ahead, the government would also be on the hook for $6-million to cover pay increases for Crown counsel and independent officers of the legislature who have their raises tied to hikes in judges' salaries.

Money saved from not financing lawyers for women's and aboriginal groups at the Missing Women Inquiry would be enough to pay for a new judge and a courtroom for a year.

But where does that leave the inquiry? Mr. Oppal believes the lack of legal representation for these groups would hurt the work of the inquiry. He decided to reshuffle the inquiry budget - spending less on preparation for the hearings - and hire a team of four lawyers specifically to represent 12 groups that the government would not fund. It was not clear yet whether groups that have withdrawn from the inquiry after the government refused funding for their lawyers would be lured back.

Some say the choice between priorities is a false dichotomy. After all, the government could have opened four courtrooms with new judges for the money that was paid out to lawyers for former ministerial aides who pleaded guilty to breach of trust in the BC Rail political-corruption scandal. But the government decided to spend the funds on lawyers.

"I find this entire mess frustrating, disgraceful and distasteful," says Ernie Crey, who has pushed for an inquiry for years. "I think the Premier needs to step up to the plate and announce that the community groups will get the necessary funding to hire legal counsel to fully participate in the inquiry," he said.

The government's support for the inquiry will remain open to question as long as the province's purse strings are tightly drawn.

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