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Valued at $1.2-million, this house in Vancouver, once used as a marijuana grow op, is one of the most valuable properties ever forfeited in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Image dated Jan. 11, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Valued at $1.2-million, this house in Vancouver, once used as a marijuana grow op, is one of the most valuable properties ever forfeited in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Image dated Jan. 11, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

B.C. Opposition plans to question scope of ‘cash cow’ office that seizes property Add to ...

B.C.’s justice critic says she plans to ask some tough questions about the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office when the legislature returns next month.

Kathy Corrigan, an NDP MLA, made her comments a few days after The Globe and Mail published a lengthy report raising questions about the fairness, public interest and transparency of the civil forfeiture process.

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Ms. Corrigan said she would support a review of the process, given the concerns.

Wally Oppal, the province’s former attorney-general, has said the same.

Premier Christy Clark, however, said Monday she supports the work the office is doing.

The Globe’s report noted the office has rapidly increased the number of files it accepts and the amount of money it brings in, while operating largely out of the public eye.

B.C. has seized $41-million in property – more than the Ontario office that opened three years earlier.

But as the scale of the forfeitures has grown, so too have concerns about the system.

Ninety-nine per cent of the people the office targets settle on terms favourable to the office.

Many cannot afford the thousands of dollars it would take to fight their case.

The office was created in 2006 to combat organized crime, but has come to have a wider reach.

Cases that in the past would have been conducted as offences under the Motor Vehicle Act, Wildlife Act, or Employment Standards Act, for example, are being pursued through the Civil Forfeiture Act.

And, unlike Ontario, B.C. has a budget target it must meet – a figure that has gone up the past two years.

Ms. Corrigan, in an interview, said she’s concerned about the fairness of the system and plans to raise the issue when MLAs return to Victoria next month.

“I think the government has to answer some serious questions about the scope of the office,” she said.

Ms. Corrigan said she’s worried civil forfeiture is being used as an end run on the criminal justice system.

She said some of the penalties handed out – losing one’s home, for instance – are disproportional to the alleged offence.

“There’s nothing in the legislation to protect against that … there’s no proportionality,” she said.

She referred to the office as a “cash cow” and said assigning a budget target it must meet creates a real danger that cases that don’t meet a high standard will be accepted.

Ms. Clark, speaking with reporters at an unrelated event, said the office is doing what it was created to do.

“I [was] able to tell young people in the school I was in last year their [anti-bullying] program is being funded partly out of the civil-forfeiture work we’ve been doing,” Ms. Clark said. “We take that money away from criminals – ill-gotten gains for programs that really make a difference in our communities. I’m proud of what we’re doing.”

Ms. Clark said she had not read the Globe report, but planned to.

While the office has taken in $41-million worth of property, it has also paid out $11-million in grants, since it opened, to community associations and police departments.

Some community organizations have said they would not be able to fund certain programs without the money the province provides through civil-forfeiture proceeds.

Sergeant Randy Fincham, a Vancouver police spokesman, said in an e-mail Monday that the office does aid in the fight against crime.

“It is believed that the forfeiture legislation does serve as a crime deterrent in that a person will refrain from participating or engaging in criminal activity if it means they could be at risk of losing their car or house that was obtained through illegal means,” he wrote.

With a report from Ian Bailey

Follow me on Twitter: @thesunnydhillon

Follow on Twitter: @TheSunnyDhillon

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