Premier yes ... Groenewegen no
Inquiry witnesses to foot own legal bills, despite Crawford's ruling
NNSL (Jul 31/98) - The legislative assembly will not pay for lawyers required by witnesses in the Morin inquiry.
That, at least, is the position of the legislative assembly's management services board. Earlier this week, members reiterated their position, which contradicts a ruling by conflict of interest commissioner Anne Crawford, again refusing to pay Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen's legal bills in the conflict of interest complaint.
While Crawford has some legal authority, the powers granted to her under the NWT Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act do not give her the right to order paid counsel for a complainant, said the board.
"It was never intended that the assembly would pay the legal costs of a person launching a complaint against a member," said board chair and assembly speaker Sam Gargan.
"We support the work of the commissioner and will do what we can to assist her. However, we cannot support her ruling, which we feel is outside the scope of her jurisdiction."
In February, the management services board first refused to pay for a lawyer to advise Groenewegen in her complaint against Morin.
Since then, and in spite of a March 18 ruling by Crawford, the board had not discussed the issue.
But earlier this week, board members MLAs Sam Gargan, Kelvin Ng, Vince Steen and Floyd Roland decided against covering legal costs of any witnesses who may be called to testify by Crawford. The fifth board member, MLA Kevin O'Brien, did not participate in the meeting.
David Hamilton, clerk of the legislative assembly, said the dispute breaks down to differing interpretations of the legislation. The board, he said, believes the act does not gives Crawford the authority to order the government to provide legal counsel in a complaint. Crawford believes it does.
Hamilton also confirmed the board is paying Morin's legal fees in the complaint.
"We have a precedent of this because the only other public inquiry we've heard was Mr. Morin and that was filed by Jeannie Marie Jewell. At that time the precedent was set by the then board of the previous assembly. They did approve his legal costs but did not pay Mrs. Marie Jewell's costs," he said.
It was the board's view that if a person lays a complaint they should rely on the commissioner to carry it through therefore removing any justification for legal counsel for witnesses.
"You have nothing to lose as an individual. You can't be charged with anything. You made the complaint and you should allow the process to follow through," said Hamilton.
He added, however, that the issue may have uncovered a fault in the system and it's something they could look into. "We may have come up with a hiccup that needs to be dealt with," he said.
Fewer than six witnesses, including Groenewegen, have requested financial backing for legal counsel to represent them in the complaint.
It is not known if board's decision will hold up the inquiry. Hamilton said the board is not trying to delay the inquiry.
A public preliminary scheduling hearing is slated for Aug. 4 at 10 a.m. at Northern United Place auditorium.
Crawford's legal team are scheduled to present a progress report on when main hearings into the complaint will be held. The lawyers will also report on the witness-interview process and make arrangements for the main hearings.
Issues such as participant status -- those who will be granted the opportunity to cross-examine witness -- and legal requirements for disclosure-of-counsel interview results may also be discussed.