Sex workers who testify at the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton serial murder case should have their identities protected and shouldn't be subjected to cross-examination from police counsel, says a lawyer at the hearings.
Jason Gratl, an independent lawyer appointed to represent the broad interests of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, says sex workers are especially vulnerable and afraid of the legal system, making them extremely reluctant to come forward and tell their stories.
"Legal processes have a bad reputation among sex workers," Mr. Gratl said Wednesday as he applied for a series of measures to protect such witnesses.
"They collectively have the perception that being around judges and lawyers is a bad thing. And of course, there are police lawyers, and that has an effect. There's a lot of testimony about the adversity between the police and sex workers."
Mr. Gratl asked for publication bans for any sex worker or sexual assault victim who testifies. He also wants them to be able to provide evidence through written affidavits, rather than appearing in person and answering questions from lawyers representing the police and prosecutors.
If other parties such as the police want to cross-examine a witness who alleges wrongdoing, Mr. Gratl said they could then make an application demonstrating why that's necessary.
He noted that, so far, the commission has been unable to convince sex workers to come forward and testify. The lone exception has been Susan Davis, an outspoken advocate who appeared earlier in the week.
Mr. Gratl said the inquiry needs sex workers to testify because their stories will be important – particularly if they had contact with Mr. Pickton or visited his farm in Port Coquitlam – and he argued they should be guaranteed protections in advance to encourage them to come forward.
"These are not going to be the affidavits of the missing women of the Downtown Eastside, because they are not in the position to provide you with any evidence," he said.
"What I'm looking for are procedural protections for current and former sex workers from the Downtown Eastside who are still living – that is to say the potential future victims of the next Robert William Pickton."
The inquiry has already heard evidence that Mr. Pickton was well-known among sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Research conducted in 2008, for example, showed that nine per cent of sex workers surveyed said they had been to Mr. Pickton's property and roughly three-quarters said they knew somebody who had.
The Vancouver police, its union and the RCMP opposed the application – specifically the blanket request to allow sex workers to avoid cross-examination.
They argue that any application for such protections should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Tim Dickson, who represents the Vancouver police, said some of the witnesses may allege the force or its officers acted improperly, and it would be unfair to deny the agency the opportunity to defend itself through cross-examination.
"There's prejudice if the affidavits are anonymous, there's prejudice if they're shielded from cross-examination, and there's prejudice if the allegations are vague and can't be countered," said Mr. Dickson.
Commissioner Wally Oppal said he will issue a decision Thursday morning.
During Wednesday's hearing, Mr. Oppal seemed skeptical of the application, suggesting it would be difficult to grant broad protections without knowing who might end up testifying.
"I want the inquiry to be open and inclusive so that people feel comfortable in coming here," he said as Mr. Gratl outlined his request.
"But it's difficult to make an order in a vacuum. If you tell me that you have a particular witness who wants to come forward and testify but is afraid, then I'm in a position to consider the application."
The hearings are examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Mr. Pickton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and why prosecutors declined to pursue an attempted murder charge against him after an attack on a sex worker in 1997.
The inquiry is expected to continue well into next year, with a final report due by June 30, 2012.
The Canadian Press