Homeless people evicted from an Abbotsford "tent city" will take the matter to B.C. Supreme Court this summer – but police documents they need for their case could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Next month, the Pivot Legal Society – which is representing the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS), as well as some other individual homeless people evicted from the camp – will ask the B.C. Court of Appeal to come up with a new legal test to determine whether people with limited means should have to pay the full cost of document disclosure in such instances.
"We think it could potentially be a huge barrier to accessing justice and holding police accountable," said D.J. Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot.
The Supreme Court case stems from a number of incidents that took place in 2013. That June, Abbotsford city officials spread chicken manure on a Gladys Avenue encampment; around the same time, homeless people accused Abbotsford police of slashing and pepper-spraying tents at another encampment.
That October, a group of about two-dozen homeless people set up camp at Abbotsford's Jubilee Park; two months later, a B.C. Supreme Court Justice granted the city an injunction, allowing staff to evict the group a few days before Christmas.
In 2014, the DWS filed a lawsuit arguing that the city's actions in displacing homeless people violated their rights under Section 7 (right to life, liberty and security of the person) and Section 15 (equality) of the Canadian Charter. The city countered that the DWS had no legal right to bring the case, but B.C. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that it did.
Pivot will argue against the Jubilee Park eviction and launch a broader challenge to three bylaws that affect the city's homeless population: the Consolidated Parks Bylaw, the Consolidated Street and Traffic Bylaw and the Consolidated Good Neighbour Bylaw. The six-week trial is scheduled to start June 29.
In building its case, Pivot is seeking documents from the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) related to eight homeless people – including police officers' end-of-shift reports – and all policies, guidelines or directives to the APD regarding its interaction with, and removal of, homeless encampments or persons over the span of about three years.
"We want the documents that show how [the city and police] work together, and how these bylaws get enforced against people who don't have a fixed address, who are just consistently displaced over and over again," Ms. Larkin said.
Because the APD is not a named party in the suit, it is considered a third party. Justice Hinkson ruled that, as such, the APD is entitled to recover the costs incurred in collecting these documents.
Constable Ian MacDonald, spokesman for the APD, said two early estimates have the cost at $24,000 and $29,000. This covers the cost of three employees – two searching for and compiling an estimated 400 files, and one to screen materials for privacy issues – and almost 500 hours of work, he said.
"This will be actual costs; there will be no surplus from this," Constable MacDonald said. "This will be a massive undertaking. I don't think it's reasonable to just say a third party can absorb 490 hours of work and years' worth of file-searching and 400-plus files encompassing eight individuals and that's just the cost of doing business."
Lawyers had originally applied to obtain documents for 20 homeless people but have since narrowed it down to eight. Constable MacDonald said the department continues to be open to discussions with Pivot on how to reduce the costs.
The matter goes before the appellate court on March 17.