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Inquests: costly, often poorly attended and sometimes useless

There's got to be a better way

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights would be an excellent place to hold inquests, columnist James Turner argues.

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights would be an excellent place to hold inquests, columnist James Turner argues.

A JUDICIAL inquest is a beautiful thing.

And as a citizen of Manitoba who has sat through his fair share of them in recent years, I’ve become concerned about seeing them flourish.

For the uninitiated, inquests are court proceedings aimed at examining the circumstances of a death of a person in state custody (at a hospital or prison, or by the hands of a police officer, for example). Inquests are almost always mandatory in these cases.

The central task is to have a provincial court judge assess relevant facts about a death and arrive at recommendations that might prevent similar deaths.

They’re not trials, and not geared toward laying blame. Regardless, its extremely important work.

And they really are so much more than just an examination of how some person died.

They’re forums for the public to learn facts about their community and get a hard look at the inner-workings of essential public agencies.

Inquests, simply put, are great for a democracy. 

Despite these outcomes, they’re also often poorly attended, difficult to keep tabs on and often covered by the media in piecemeal fashion — or not at all.

And they can be very costly.

I say this because of an inquest report released last week in which Judge Brian Colli tells us some truths that bear further discussion.

I suspect few would have cared about Colli’s report into the death of Robert Wood if it hadn’t been for his lone recommendation . 

Wood, 59, died in a Winnipeg hospital a few days after he fell on his head inside an RCMP holding cell in Nelson House on the morning of Dec. 30, 2009. 

His blood-alcohol level was found to be more than four times the legal limit. 

"The fall experienced by Mr. Wood in the holding cell was unavoidable," Colli wrote. "It occurred because of his lack of judgment, balance and co-ordination arising from his intoxicated state. In other words, there is no reason whatever to think that Mr. Wood tripped or was pushed or nudged. He simply spontaneously toppled over." Barring expensive or impractical changes to police holding cells to help mitigate falls, there was nothing that could have been done to prevent Wood’s death.

Everyone in a position to know likely knew this a very long time ago, but the fact is, an inquest was mandatory.

Colli — rightfully — took issue with the fact the compulsory inquest tied up provincial court resources that could have been put to better use. 

The public portion of the Wood inquest lasted little more than two days. That’s not routine, however; the recent Jaylene Redhead inquest was heard over 41 days between August 2012 and December 2013, involving multiple lawyers and parties. The final report is massive and filled with nuanced facts and findings.

But despite its brevity, Colli notes, the Wood inquest was only wrapped up two years after it was called.

And that’s despite how only one party — the RCMP — requested standing at the hearings, said Colli.

The proceedings were a "fruitless exercise," he said.

"The circumstances of the death were well-known," Colli wrote.

"No one expressed an interest in obtaining standing at this inquest even though invitations were extended to both the (First) Nation government and to the family," stated Colli.

"No member of the public attended any part of the hearing. The evidence that I heard along with the general lack of interest from the public makes it clear that this death was not controversial." In the end, the judge recommends the province change its legislation on inquests to allow for pre-screening.

It would work like this: If no one other than the agency involved (such as the RCMP in Wood’s case) requests standing, and if no one from the public expresses an interest in attending, then an assigned judge should be allowed to review the material available to determine if any recommendations could come out of the process.

If not, and the other criteria are met, then the judge gets to use his or her discretion to cancel the inquest. 

"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," he wrote. 

Colli didn’t indicate if a judge electing to nix an inquest should be required to write a public report explaining why.

Still, his is an interesting recommendation, one Justice Minister Andrew Swan says he’s taking a serious look at.

It’s hard not to see the logic. The system has to adapt to reality.

And that’s really the rub: adaptation. There are a few recommendations I could make about inquests that would help address some of the problems Colli identified.

 

If more public participation is desired, then maybe don’t hold hearings at times where most citizens are working or tending to the duties of their lives and therefore, can’t attend. 

Also, citizens can’t go to what they don’t know about. 

Despite the fact there are currently several inquests running concurrently throughout Manitoba, there’s no simple way to keep track of them.

The government must set up and properly maintain a public website to advertise inquests, with details of where they’re being held and when.

Finally, how about bringing these non-adversarial, fact-finding cases directly to the people? 

Televise them, or hold them in a location outside a courthouse (this obviously doesn’t apply in remote communities). 

I’ve long thought it would be great to see our soon-to-be open Canadian Museum for Human Rights host inquests.

What a great symbol that would be: a venue dedicated to learning and discovery (not dispute-resolution, which is the domain of a courthouse) showing off one of the best ways we as citizens try to achieve a better, fairer society.

 

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

 

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