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BC Journalists-the new political arbiters? CanWest's Keith Baldrey-special for Coquitlam Now newspaper
word of the month---Baldrey imbroglio-"an intricate or complex situation".  May 14, 2008

Commentary
Crown vs. coroner's service: nobody wins
Keith Baldrey, Special to Coquitlam NOW Published: Wednesday, May 14, 2008
An extraordinary dispute has erupted between two independent arms of the provincial justice system, and unfortunately it is the public that is getting squeezed by the whole affair.
The coroner's service has squared off against the criminal justice branch over the issue of whether or not a coroner's inquest can cross-examine a Crown counsel.
Both sides have a principled position. The coroner's service is trying to assemble as many facts as possible regarding the circumstances surrounding that tragic mass murder-suicide in Oak Bay last September.
In that case, the perpetrator of the crime -- Peter Lee -- was out on bail despite the fact that he had assaulted his wife (she claimed he tried to kill her), who told police she feared he would kill her and the rest of the family if he were let out of jail.
The regional Crown counsel has already testified at the inquest, but was unable or unwilling to provide answers to key questions. The coroner's attempt to call the two Crown counsel who were actually involved in the decision to let Lee out on bail has been rebuffed by the criminal justice branch.
The branch feels that subjecting its Crown counsel to cross-examination at the inquest would send a "chill" through its ranks and threaten the independence of Crown counsel and their ability to function without interference.
There's certainly merit in the branch's insistence that it squelch any threat to its integrity and independence. But, in its zeal to do that in this case, it is actually risking its integrity in the eyes of the public it serves.
Crown counsel are not immune from scrutiny or even second-guessing. Their actions are routinely critiqued by appeal courts, and as for their cherished independence, they can and do act -- occasionally -- on political direction from the attorney general.
The Oak Bay inquest has certainly raised questions about how Crown counsel handle domestic abuse cases and about the bail system itself. The counsel in this case undoubtedly possess information that is relevant to getting to the bottom of the tragedy, and the coroner's jury rightly wants some answers to key questions (e.g. why was the police recommendation that Lee be held in custody ignored).
There appear to be a number of problems here. First of all, it seems the criminal justice branch views a coroner's inquest as having less import than, say, a criminal court.
Second, it also appears the branch has a major -- and perhaps understandable -- problem with subjecting its counsel to "cross-examination" at an inquest, where lawyers from various parties (the coroner, the police and, in this case, a victims' rights group) can have a go at anyone on the witness stand.
Third, there is the question of how to resolve this imbroglio.
There have been calls, in some quarters, for Attorney General Wally Oppal and even Premier Gordon Campbell to get involved here and overrule the criminal justice branch. Oppal, it must be said, firmly agrees with the position taken by the branch and has compared cross-examining Crown counsel to doing the same thing with judges (a bit of a stretch, if you ask me).
In any case, demanding that either Oppal or even the premier get involved is wrong-headed because it would bring the political arm of government into an area it should stay well away from.
It should be up to the criminal justice branch and the coroner's service to sort this out, but that appears unlikely. The matter will now be heard by the B.C. Supreme Court later this month, which at least is a more fair arbiter than the political side of government.
Perhaps a solution lies somewhere between the polarized positions, as is so often the case.
For example, why not have the Crown counsel submit detailed depositions explaining how and why they made their decisions when dealing with Peter Lee? Avoiding cross-examination from lawyers with axes to grind is one thing, but refusing to provide any relevant information is quite another.
The criminal justice branch rightly has a reputation for integrity and independence. But its insistence that its actions are beyond scrutiny and accountability is threatening to undermine that very same reputation.
Glen P. Robbins note: Keith Baldrey is commonly known in journalistic circles in British Columbia as one of the "three wise men" along with Michael Smyth who write for the Vancouver Province, and Vaughn Palmer who write for the Vancouver Sun--and who has a great Shaw TV show called Voice of the Province.

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