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Manitoba judge recommends province give court power to cancel some inquests

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WINNIPEG - Manitoba's attorney general says he is seriously considering whether to give judges the power to quash mandatory inquests to save time and resources.

Judge Brian Colli made the recommendation after presiding over an inquest into an intoxicated man's death in RCMP custody after falling in his cell. The force was the only party that requested standing, but the inquest still took two years from start to finish, Colli pointed out.

Inquests are mandatory in Manitoba if someone dies while in police custody or in a psychiatric institution.

The province should amend the Fatality Inquiries Act to allow judges to cancel a mandatory inquest if no member of the public expresses interest, if a government agency or police force is the only party to request standing or if it's unlikely to yield any recommendations to the province, Colli recommended.

"I am firmly of the view that if all three of these conditions are met, the devotion of any further resources to inquiring into the death is simply not worth the cost."

Attorney General Andrew Swan said he's taking the recommendation "very seriously."

"It is a fact that inquests do take up a fair amount of resources," Swan said Friday. "We are moving across our entire system to make sure that we're using our resources as effectively as possible. Even this inquest took a number of days of court time and the judge's time.

"It may well be that it's more effective, in this kind of situation, to have the judge out doing other things."

Ronald Wood was taken into custody in Nelson House on Dec. 20, 2009. He was put in a cell where he lost his balance and struck his head on the cement floor. He was transported to hospital but never regained consciousness and died two days later. An inquest was automatically called because he died in police custody.

Inquests are held so judges can make recommendations to the province, a provincial department or agency, but Colli said it was obvious from the outset that he wouldn't be making any in this case.

"It is disappointing to me that it has been a fruitless exercise in accomplishing any of the purposes of the hearing. The circumstances of the death were well known. No one expressed an interested in obtaining standing at this inquest, even though invitations were extended to both the First Nation government and to the family," Colli wrote.

"The evidence that I heard, along with the general lack of interest from the public, makes it clear that this death was not controversial."

The inquest was unnecessary, he concluded.

"The holding of this inquest satisfies the requirements of the act but, given the lack of interest in it and lack of recommendations arising from it, it strikes me as a hollow accomplishment because it did not attain any of the goals that we should expect from an inquest," Colli said. "It seems to me that we would have achieved greater results from allocating those court and judicial resources elsewhere."

The government is focused on improving the efficiency of the judicial system, Swan said. But he added that if the NDP decides to go ahead with any legislative changes, it probably won't be until next year.

"Where there is a lack of interest by family members, by other parties, it seems we should take a look at what this judge has suggested we do," Swan said.

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