Vancouver civil-rights lawyer Cameron Ward believes that it’s a “very bad idea” to do away with mandatory inquests into deaths of individuals in police custody.
The prominent police watchdog was reacting to proposed legislative changes to the B.C. Coroners Act contained in an omnibus bill tabled by the B.C. Liberal government on March 22. He also suggested that the measure will make police less accountable.
“A coroner’s inquest has often been the only avenue by which a deceased’s loved one can learn the truth about what happened,” Ward told the Straight by phone. “It permits the full airing of the facts. In my view, this legislation reduces transparency, and it concerns me a great deal because it may result in these important cases being obscured and the details being withheld from public view.”
The proposed legislative amendments seek to provide the chief coroner the discretion to waive a compulsory inquest if the police in-custody death is due to natural causes and could not be prevented, not connected to the care or supervision of the police, or if the incident is the subject of a public inquiry.
In a phone interview, deputy chief coroner Norm Leibel noted that in a typical year, inquests are made into 15 to 20 police custody–related deaths.
“In some circumstances of those mandatory inquests, we have circumstances where there’s no preventability, there’s no sort of recommendations that would flow from such a public inquest, and there’s no real public interest or family interest with proceeding with that inquest either,” Leibel told the Straight.
By granting discretion to the chief coroner, Leibel explained further, mandatory inquests could be reduced by 30 to 40 percent. “The preparation for any public inquest is significant, and if you could see where that sort of energy could be put into some other types of death, then it’s a very positive side for everybody,” he said.
Ward, who has represented families of people who died at the hands of the police in several cases, doesn’t see any need to forgo mandatory inquests.
He explained that a coroner’s inquest is a public fact-finding investigation held before a jury. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the jury can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. “Often, unfortunately, those recommendations, which aren’t binding, are ignored, but nonetheless it’s an important function that should be preserved,” the lawyer said.
Ward added that other avenues, like the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP and the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, are perceived by the public as “not very effective”.