Sex workers need identities protected at Pickton inquiry, lawyer says

Vulnerable witnesses may be drug users or open to intimidation, need to feel comfortable and safe when speaking, independent counsel argues.

Photo of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The independent lawyers appointed to represent community interests in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have begun work -- and their first act was to ask for some protection for sex workers testifying at the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case.

The Canadian Press has the story:

VANCOUVER -- Current and former sex workers should have their identities protected if they testify at the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, says one of the independent lawyers appointed to represent the views of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and aboriginal women at the hearings.

Jason Gratl, one of two lawyers appointed earlier this week after about a dozen non-profit advocacy groups were denied legal funding, plans to file an application next week asking the inquiry to establish protocols for vulnerable witnesses.

"So that they can feel comfortable speaking with us and providing evidence to the commission perhaps under conditions of anonymity, perhaps with publication bans, perhaps affording them some limited protection against aggressive cross-examination,'' Gratl, former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in an interview Friday.

"They may be current or former sex workers or users of illicit drugs. These would be people who wish to protect their reputations. They may be concerned about retaliation from institutional sources or from predators on the street. And they may be concerned about aggressive cross-examination from counsel for the police.''

Gratl was appointed to represent the views of Downtown Eastside residents, while Robyn Gervais, who has previously represented the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, will present the interests of aboriginal women.

The appointments were an attempt to allay concerns that a list of non-profit groups were denied legal funding. Gratl and Gervais won't specifically represent any of those groups, but will ask them for guidance.

The groups were granted participant status at the hearings and commissioner Wally Oppal recommended they receive funding, but the province refused.

A growing number have either formally pulled out of the inquiry because of the funding decision or have said they can't afford to send lawyers to make submissions and question witnesses. Several have already rejected the idea of working with the independent lawyers.

Gratl admits it's still not ideal to have two lawyers represent the interests of such a diverse and wide-ranging community, but he hopes there is enough common ground to make it work.

"I know there have been reservations expressed by participant groups in the past, but I'm currently reaching out to those groups to try to see what I can offer them by way of cross-examination or presentation of their perspectives,'' said Gratl.

"Everyone agrees that the police and police institutions ought to do more to protect people in the Downtown Eastside and aboriginal women from predators like Robert Pickton instead of dismissing reports that women have gone missing.''

Gratl said he's sent a letter to the groups outlining his plans and has started setting up meetings for next week.

He also plans to file an application giving the unfunded groups access to a trove of police documents that are already in the hands of the inquiry.

Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH drop-in centre for sex workers, said it's too early to say how her organization will be involved with Gratl and Gervais. She said the funding decision means her group can't afford to send its own lawyer, though WISH hasn't yet decided whether to formally withdraw.

Gibson said the pair of independent lawyers have a difficult job ahead of them.

"It's two counsel who are somehow charged with what looks like an impossible task of bringing forward concerns, issues, reports, testimony from people from a very large community that has been severely affected by the missing and murdered women and violence against women,'' Gibson said in an interview.

At the very least, Gibson said WISH will have representatives in the room watching the hearings when they begin in October.

"We aren't able to participate formally because we aren't able to afford legal representation, but we are still trying to determine how to participate in a way that would support women or enable women to come forward or to bring information to light that should be examined or heard,'' said Gibson.

Oppal, a former judge and one-time attorney general, was asked to examine why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to stop Pickton as he murdered sex workers from the Downtown Eastside until he was arrested in 2002.

Oppal will also hold a less-formal study commission that will look at broader issues surrounding missing and murdered women, including cases along the so-called Highway of Tears in northern B.C.

Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam, and he bragged to police that he killed 49.

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