The Toronto Police Services Board has approved legal costs of more than $1-million annually for officers who faced court proceedings, although this year’s bill could rise by millions more as a result of two high-profile prosecutions.
The spike in costs could come as Chief Bill Blair deals with a budget freeze in 2013 that he has warned will result in fewer officers on the street.
Between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2012, the board approved fees totalling nearly $4.1-million for lawyers representing individual officers. The payments are part of the police budget: the board receives a report from Chief Blair and the city’s legal department on whether to pay any or all of a legal bill. If the board rejects a claim then it falls to the union to pay the bill.
The collective agreement provides for indemnification of “reasonable” legal costs if there is no conviction, or if the Chief determines that the legal proceeding related to the officer performing duties in good faith. Many of the claims submitted to police are relatively low in price, for legal work such as representing witness officers interviewed by the Special Investigations Unit. However, criminal trials can be much more expensive.
Although the board rejected a request for nearly $1.7-million submitted by the lawyers who represented Bill McCormack, brother of the president of the Toronto Police Association Mike McCormack, the association could contest the decision.
Corruption-related charges against Bill McCormack were stayed by an Ontario Superior Court judge in December 2009 for unreasonable delay, more than 67 months after he was charged. Justice Bonnie Croll blamed much of the delay on the conduct of Inspector Bryce Evans, a senior investigator with the Toronto police professional standards branch.
The police board denied the legal claim this fall and stated there was evidence that Bill McCormack “abused his powers” as an officer. The union is now considering whether to file a grievance of the decision (Mike McCormack is not involved in this case).
As well, the multimillion-dollar legal bill for five former Toronto police drug squad officers could also lead to another fee dispute. John Schertzer and four other officers were convicted in June of attempting to obstruct justice. Three of the officers were also convicted of perjury. But they were acquitted of several other charges.
John Rosen, who represented Mr. Schertzer at his trial (and whose firm acted for Bill McCormack), said at least some of the legal bills should be covered by the city. “There were 15 counts in the indictment. They were acquitted on the most serious ones. Some indemnification would absolutely be appropriate,” said Mr. Rosen.
The association is waiting for the officers to be sentenced next month, before deciding whether to pursue an indemnification claim, said Mike McCormack.
Among the legal fees approved this year was a bill of $280,000 for the successful defence in provincial court of a constable charged with assault bodily harm during the April 2008 arrest of a suspected drug dealer. “The fees were substantial due to the protracted period of time it took to conclude the matter,” the board stated.
Even if acquitted of criminal charges, officers accused of wrongdoing may be the focus of a coroner’s inquiry, a civil suit or a complaint to a civilian review agency. Lawyers who frequently act for police say a strong indemnification system is needed.
“You are facing a long long road of review,” said Toronto lawyer Joseph Markson. “Unpredictable indemnification undermines the support police officers rely upon to bravely serve the public.”
The ongoing costs to the police board and the Toronto Police Association of defending officers could soon lead to changes to the legal indemnification provisions in their collective bargaining agreement.
“What we are trying to work out is how the lawyers are compensated,” said Mike McCormack. “We want to do this in a cost effective and efficient way, given the current economic realities.” By the end of January, there may be a new draft agreement, he said.
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said he could not comment on any specific case. He stressed that “significant financial scrutiny” goes into any claim, before a recommendation is made to the board.
A spokeswoman for the board said it cannot comment on individual claims under the provisions of the Police Services Act.
Another major legal expense for the city was the independent civilian review commissioned after the G20 Summit in June 2010.
Surplus finds from the police and the board’s operating budgets were used to cover the final $1.3-million legal bill submitted this year by John Morden, former associate chief justice of Ontario. That total included approved rates of $470 per hour for Mr. Morden, which he later reduced to $300. The board also approved hourly rates of $275 for a lawyer with six years experience to assist Mr. Morden, $260 for a first-year lawyer, $230 for an articling student and $235 for a law clerk.