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Civil servants' legal defences come under scrutiny in B.C.

Surrounded by media Dave Basi walks with his lawyer Michael Bolton into Vancouver's BC Supreme court May 17. 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government is looking for a way to avoid a repeat of a controversial decision that left taxpayers holding the bag for the $6-million in defence costs for two disgraced former government aides convicted in the BC Rail scandal.

B.C. Attorney-General Barry Penner said Thursday he is recommending that cabinet appoint an independent expert to look at the public service policy that provided the framework for the payouts.

"I've developed some concerns about the clarity of the existing indemnity policy for public sector employees. I've shared my concerns with Premier [Christy]Clark in the last few days, since she assumed the job, and she shares those concerns," Mr. Penner said.

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The policy was developed in the 1980s to provide protection for public servants who are hit with civil legal proceedings in the course of their duties. It has since evolved on an ad-hoc basis to include criminal cases and human-rights tribunals.

In order to limit future payouts, the government may decide to cap defence costs or delay payments until a verdict is reached so that only those who are cleared of wrongdoing are covered, but the terms of the review have not yet been set.

"I felt there was a lack of clarity and guidance for senior public servants who have to make decisions about how and when to extend this legal indemnity coverage to public sector employees when they get into certain legal situations," Mr. Penner said.

"In looking at the indemnity policy and how it has been applied, I think we should give greater direction to the public servants when they are applying this policy and look for ways we can protect taxpayers' interests and try to limit those costs in the future."

Mr. Penner noted that cabinet has not yet approved the review. However he spoke only after the Premier publicly said she was in favour of rethinking the policy.

During the campaign for the B.C. Liberal leadership, Ms. Clark rejected calls for a review of the $6-million payout as proposed by rival candidate George Abbott, who is now her Education Minister.

But on Thursday she said the policy itself deserves scrutiny. "I agree that there are grounds for a review," she told CKNW's Bill Good during a radio interview.

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She said that, like other British Columbians, she is curious about whether the indemnity policy is fair, what it is, how does it work, who gets it and under what circumstances.

"I think those are the questions that came to light in this case," she said.

Mr. Penner said he shares the concern of taxpayers about the defence costs in the BC Rail case, but he said it's unrealistic to expect the government can reverse that decision now.

The legal fees were paid out over the span of years for two defendants, David Basi and Bob Virk. When the pair were convicted, senior civil servants concluded there was no point trying to recoup the money because the former political aides could not pay the bills. "By the time the accused changed their story, the money had already left the treasury," Mr. Penner noted.

He said the review will have to consider how the Basi-Virk case was handled but the goal is to provide better guidelines for the future. "Our touchstone is going to be, how can we make the policy open, clear and understandable to British Columbians as well as to the senior civil servants who are being asked to implement the policy on a case-by-case basis."

With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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