British Columbia's ombudsperson says there is a "high level of public concern about the fairness" of the province's increasingly controversial seizures of property deemed to be proceeds of crime – and is asking the public to complain to her so she can probe the process.
Ombudsperson Kim Carter is pointing to rising unease about administrative forfeiture, which speeds the government's ability to seize property worth less than $75,000 by not requiring a case be proven in court.
Her request for complaints – which would allow her office to investigate administrative forfeiture – came on the same day The Globe and Mail published a report on the process, part of a months-long investigation into the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office.
In 2011, B.C. became the first province in the country to introduce administrative forfeiture. "It's important that people know they can come to us if they feel a government agency such as the Civil Forfeiture Office has not dealt with their problem adequately or fairly," Ms. Carter said. "Often when we're able to resolve one person's complaint, it can lead to changes that improve things for many others in similar situations," she said.
B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said Wednesday the government will not review the office. Ms. Anton and Premier Christy Clark have said they're confident in the work the office is doing and do not see any need for a closer look, though such a move has been backed by the opposition and a former attorney-general.
The ombudsperson's office is able to make findings and recommend solutions to systemic problems and report to the legislative assembly.
B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office was created in 2006 to fight organized crime, but has come to have a wider reach. B.C. has been among the most aggressive of the provinces in pursuing property and cash in this way. Although it launched three years after Ontario, B.C. has hauled in $2-million more: $41-million to Ontario's $39-million. Unlike Ontario, B.C. issues its office budget targets, which have gone up over the past two years.
Ninety-nine per cent of the people the B.C. office targets settle on terms favourable to the office.
B.C. has taken on 921 administrative forfeiture cases since the process was introduced. Of the $41-million the office has seized in total since its creation, $3-million has come from administrative forfeiture cases. Alberta and Manitoba have followed B.C.'s lead and introduced administrative forfeiture programs.
When asked for comment about the ombudsperson's announcement, a spokesperson said Ms. Anton's earlier statement stands.
Ms. Carter said concerns about the administrative forfeiture process are not much different from other kinds of issues her office deals with. She said her office earlier this week released a report that found the Ministry of Social Development was not meeting its own legislated requirements and more than 900 clients lost out on benefits.
"A number of individual complaints came to us, we ended up doing a broader investigation and found out there were a lot more people who were adversely affected," she said.