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Children's watchdog in B.C. wins right to view documents

Premier Gordon Campbell and his children's minister were ordered Friday to hand over cabinet documents to the province's children's watchdog after a judge ruled the rights of vulnerable children trumped cabinet confidentiality.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin decided in favour of B.C.'s independent Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, ruling that the premier and his children's minister failed in their legal duty to provide the information to the children's watchdog.

Turpel-Lafond went to court after complaining the government was restricting her efforts on behalf of children by denying her access to cabinet documents she said she needed to complete a report on a government program for children living in the home of relatives.

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The Ministry of the Attorney General released a written statement Friday afternoon saying it is complying with the court decision and handing over the documents.

"We respect the court's decision and have immediately provided the documents to the representative's legal counsel," said the ministry statement.

"This issue has never been about access to specific documents, as the information was always available to the representative. We will continue to pursue our intention to ensure a protocol is in place that allows appropriate access to cabinet documents so that independent officers of the legislature can do their work," said the statement.

Griffin said the government had a legal duty to provide the cabinet documents to Turpel-Lafond.

"I have concluded that the petitioner had the right to request the information," said the written ruling.

"I therefore grant declaratory relief, declaring both the Ministry for Children and Family Development and the Office of the Premier have failed to comply with the statutory duty . . . "

Griffin also granted an order stating there is a clear public legal duty for Turpel-Lafond to act on behalf of children and there is a legal duty for the government to comply and hand over the documents.

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Outside court, Turpel-Lafond said she took no joy in taking the government to court, but was delighted with the decision and felt vindicated.

"This is a huge precedent with respect to children," she said. Her lawsuit named Campbell and Polak, though neither testified, nor did Turpel-Lafond.

The government asked Turpel-Lafond to sign a protocol agreement that would have permitted her to view the documents, but gave the government control over their use.

The Liberals introduced legislation last month to amend the Representative for Children and Youth Act to ensure cabinet confidentiality is protected. The proposed legislation also included retroactive powers to deny documents dating back to March 2007.

But Turpel-Lafond argued that her office was set up with sweeping powers that should give her access even to cabinet documents.

"Looking at whether vulnerable children have good programing and good support is a higher priority as a matter of public policy than cabinet confidentiality," she said.

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Turpel-Lafond said she hopes the court ruling "will give them pause to reconsider."

Ted Hughes, the former judge who wrote the child-welfare report that eventually led to the creation of Turpel-Lafond's position, was in court when the decision was given.

Hughes said outside court that he has been silent on the child welfare issue for the past four years, but would release a statement Monday on the court case and child-welfare issues in general.

He then left, saying he was going home to review the judgment.

Opposition New Democrat children's critic Maurine Karagianis said the Liberals should be embarrassed the matter was taken to court by the children's representative and the legislation should be dropped.

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