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B.C. woman acquitted of human trafficking settles case over civil forfeiture

Mumtaz Ladha, who was acquitted of human trafficking, says B.C. government agency ruthlessly pursued her over false narrative.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

A woman acquitted of human trafficking who then filed a lawsuit over the conduct of both British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office and the RCMP has settled her case, saying she wants to move past the "terrible saga."

Mumtaz Ladha sued the provincial and federal governments in February, 2015. She said British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office – a government agency that does not need a conviction or charges to pursue property – relentlessly attempted to seize her multimillion-dollar home after the RCMP pushed an "improper narrative" that she had enslaved a young woman. Ms. Ladha's lawyer said she has now settled her lawsuit against both parties.

British Columbia's NDP government – which had called for a review of the province's Civil Forfeiture Act when it was in opposition – said Wednesday it has no plans to order one.

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The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the Civil Forfeiture Office, which was established as a way to fight organized crime but has come to have a far broader reach. Critics have questioned some of the files it takes on, calling it a cash cow. The Globe has interviewed those who have had to fight to keep their homes, vehicles, money and even a coin collection. Others have been unable to afford to argue their case.

Editorial: Once again, B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office uses too heavy a hand

Ms. Ladha, in a statement released through her lawyer, said now that the proceedings have concluded she is looking forward to "resuming my normal life with my reputation, and that of my family, fully restored."

Ms. Ladha highlighted an RCMP apology she received this week and said the force spread an incorrect narrative when she was charged in May, 2011.

Ms. Ladha's lawsuit had accused the RCMP of pushing a slave narrative in which the complainant in the case was said to have been brought to Canada without papers, before being forced to work 18 hours a day for no pay and only "table scraps" as food.

Ms. Ladha was found not guilty of human trafficking in November, 2013, with a B.C. Supreme Court judge saying the complainant – who was from Tanzania – was looking to remain in Canada and showed a "callous disregard" for truth.

"I only hope that something like this never happens to anyone else, ever again," Ms. Ladha's statement read.

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The apology letter sent to Ms. Ladha by the RCMP was signed by Superintendent Sean Sullivan and confirmed the lawsuit had been resolved through a "compensation agreement." It said during the course of the criminal investigation "certain public statements were made by the RCMP that the force now recognizes were improper.

"On behalf of the RCMP, I would like to unreservedly apologize to you and your family for those statements," the letter read.

David Martin, Ms. Ladha's lawyer, said he could not disclose details of the settlement. He said in an interview that his client agreed to terms with the province last year, but the deal with Ottawa was only agreed to three weeks ago.

Ms. Ladha's lawsuit had claimed general, special, aggravated and punitive damages. It said her family had legal fees of $392,630 for the criminal case and $159,331 for the forfeiture case.

Additionally, she said the Civil Forfeiture Office incorrectly said that Ms. Ladha's daughter had also been criminally charged – causing her to lose her job – and played down evidence that went in Ms. Ladha's favour as it sought to meet its financial targets. The province later said the inaccurate statement about Ms. Ladha's daughter originated with the RCMP.

The lawsuit said police ignored holes in the complainant's story and forwarded Ms. Ladha's file to the Civil Forfeiture Office after the Crown said it would not pursue criminal forfeiture.

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An RCMP spokesperson said in an e-mail that Supt. Sullivan's letter reflected the force's position and it had no further comment.

When asked during an interview about the NDP's previous call for a review, B.C.'s Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth, who is responsible for the Civil Forfeiture Office, said the office has experienced "some growing pains." But he said he believes the appropriate checks and balances are in place and the office is "being used the way that it is supposed to be used."

Those checks and balances, Mr. Farnworth said, include the fact cases can only be referred to the Civil Forfeiture Office by law enforcement. But when it was noted Ms. Ladha's case was referred to the office by law enforcement, Mr. Farnworth said: "That was a case that led to going, 'Okay, we need to make sure that the civil-forfeiture cases are in line with the spirit of the legislation, which was very much around gang crime and organized crime.'"

The BC Liberal government repeatedly defended the office, saying it only pursued cases in the public interest.

Mr. Martin said he was stunned when the office said it did not owe his client a duty of care and had no duty to investigate whether commencing forfeiture was appropriate.

"What government agency doesn't assess the propriety of proceeding against a citizen before doing so? They have enormous power. And they, like all government agencies, have a duty to ensure that they exercise that power properly and proportionally any time they do so," he said.

The province has said the office did not demonstrate bad faith in pursuing a case against Ms. Ladha and does not take on cases to meet financial targets.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice in Ottawa said it does not plan to review how provinces use civil forfeiture. In a report last year, the Canadian Constitution Foundation said civil-forfeiture programs across the country – eight, in total – trampled on the rights of citizens and seized property from innocent people. It gave the civil-forfeiture regimes in British Columbia and Ontario a grade of "F."

The use of civil forfeiture has drawn similar criticism south of the border, but U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced last month that country's Department of Justice would restore a policy that allows local and state police to more readily seize assets under federal law. The practice had been scaled back by the Obama administration.

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