Pubdate: Mon, 02 Oct 2000
Source: Province, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2000 The Province
Contact:  200 Granville Street, Ste. #1, Vancouver, BC V6C 3N3 Canada
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Author: Adrienne Tanner


Never before have Vancouver provincial court judges and their decisions 
been subject to such scrutiny.

Citizen volunteers kicked off a court-watch program in September that will 
track 50 drug offences from start to finish. And earlier this year, the 
Vancouver Police Department posted officers in remand court to analyze bail 

The projects, in particular the police effort, have ignited debate over 
where to draw the line between the public's right to know and the judges' 
right to work free from harassment.

While no one challenges the democratic importance of open courts, defence 
lawyers fear the watch programs are a political push for harsher sentences.

They grumble it is the duty of prosecutors, not police, to monitor sentencing.

"I'm not saying police shouldn't speak their minds, but this is a clear 
attempt to intimidate the court," says lawyer Sheldon Goldberg. He was 
upset earlier this year when two pregnant police officers on light duty 
spent months observing remand court.

Pat Angley, another defence lawyer, had similar feelings.

"I thought there could be circumstances where it could be intimidating to 
Crown and judges. Not all judges are concerned about public opinion, but 
some are."

Vancouver police Insp. Chris Beach said the officers were sent to court to 
observe, not intimidate.

"That's a ridiculous claim," he said.

The program began at a time when police were seeking to have accused drug 
dealers banned from certain areas as part of their release conditions. 
Officers were sent to observe bail reviews to see why some requests were 
successful and others were not.

"We paid very particular attention to the judge's decision . . . tried to 
make sense of it . . . and tired to prepare our officers better," Beach said.

The watch program ended when the two officers went on maternity leave. But 
Beach said he would not hesitate to reinstate it should the need arise.

Meanwhile, a citizen's court-watch program, announced last year, finally 
started last month.

Chris Taulu, co-ordinator of the Collingwood Community Policing Centre, 
said her program is staffed by volunteers and does not involve police. It 
was developed to address a general feeling that the court system is doing 
little to combat Vancouver's drug problem.

"Everyone is complaining that people (drug dealers) are back on the street 
doing their thing, that they don't get long enough sentences."

Taulu says her volunteers will chart the course of 50 randomly chosen drug 
cases and then analyze the sentencing patterns.

"Part of it is education for the volunteers and education for the community 
about what goes on. All we're doing is collecting information. We're not 
threatening anyone."

Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, warned that 
the study may not be statistically accurate.

"I'm always concerned about people who approach the collection of data with 
preconceived ideas," Boyd said.

If the judges are uncomfortable with the court-watch programs, they have 
not passed on their concerns.

Provincial court Chief Judge Carol Baird-Ellan was not aware of the police 
monitoring program and had received no complaints.

"Court's a public place," she said.
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