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Policy change encourages more witnesses, victims to testify in court
BY LORI CULBERT, VANCOUVER SUN JANUARY 6, 2015 7:47 PM
In an artist’s rendering, Gina Houston, left, was the Crown’s first star witness in the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, right.
Photograph by: GLENN BAGLO, VANCOUVER SUN
There will be more support for vulnerable victims and witnesses at criminal trials under new provincial rules that respond to recommendations from the 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
One of the key recommendations from the hefty inquiry report, written by former attorney general Wally Oppal, was for B.C.’s criminal justice system to be less alienating, especially for women who work in the sex trade.
Oppal heard from dozens of witnesses at the inquiry, called to examine the police investigation into Vancouver’s missing women and the prosecution of serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton in 2007.
More than two years after the release of his report, which made 65 recommendations for change, the criminal justice branch announced policy changes Tuesday designed to encourage more vulnerable people to participate in trials.
“Crown Counsel should keep in mind that vulnerable victims and witnesses may be particularly subject to pressure, intimidation, and interference,” the new policy acknowledges.
Vulnerability can be influenced by a person’s job, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental health, substance use, language, legal status, poverty and history of abuse, the new policy states.
The attorney general now promises prosecutors, dealing with vulnerable people, will:
• be assigned early to files, have specialized training, provide regular updates, try to get early trial dates, and stay with the case from start to finish;
• pursue publication bans, protective orders and accommodations such as testifying by video or behind a screen when applicable;
• work with vulnerable people’s social supports to try to overcome their reluctance to testify;
• ask for warrants that protect the vulnerable victims/witnesses when an accused is released.
In an interview, Oppal said the changes are necessary because the justice system is very adversarial, with one side challenging the testimony of the other.
“I think all of us in the system need to be more sensitive to victims,” said Oppal, a former B.C. Appeal Court justice. “If the system is going to have any credibility then it has to take into account the effects of the crime on the victim, and particularly the effects on vulnerable women.”
Oppal noted in his report that a vulnerable person’s evidence should not be devalued, as it was in the case of an important Pickton witness — a drug-addicted sex-trade worker — who the Crown dismissed as too unstable.
Many vulnerable women are reluctant to testify, often due to fear for their safety, but some of these new changes will help, said Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, a Vancouver drop-in centre for sex-trade workers.
“It is hard to keep going back (to the prosecutor’s office) and meeting somebody new every time, but what this focuses on is keeping the file with the same Crown counsel from the beginning,” she said.
“And it is important to have Crown counsel with experience in the area of vulnerable people, and a view of the world that is compassionate.”
Gibson wished, though, that the new policy was more specific about protecting women engaged in the sex trade, as they work in a “criminalized environment.”
Indeed, a lawyer who testified at the inquiry said Crown policy should address “the unique vulnerability of sex-trade workers and the inordinate incidence of violence directed toward them.”
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