Province should pay legal fees from fatality inquiries into Indigenous teen suicides: judge

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The Alberta government should pay the legal fees for a small First Nations children’s services agency that appeared at the fatality inquiries into the suicides of four Indigenous teenagers, a judge ruled in a strongly-worded 15-page decision.

Fatality inquiries took place last year into the suicides of four Maskwacis teenagers — between the ages of 15 and 19 — each of whom had recent contact with child protection services.

Reports have not yet been released into the deaths, which took place between 2017 and 2020.

The Akamihk Child and Family Services Society made a court application in hopes the judge would at least recommend the province provide funding for a lawyer to represent the organization.

Under current laws, judges do not have the power to order state-funded counsel.

But while Justice Danielle Dalton said she was mindful that no court has made such a recommendation in the past, she also posed a question: “If not in this case, then when?”

“What constellation of factors would be required to tip the scale if not this?” the judge asked.

“If this is not a case that warrants a recommendation, one might be forgiven for thinking that the process to secure state-funded counsel is hollow.”

The four deaths were examined at the inquiries where all other parties — including the RCMP, Alberta Health Services, Indigenous Services Canada — had publicly funded counsel.

Dalton called the situation “discomforting” and “unsettling.”

“A small, impecunious First Nations children’s services agency tasked with the welfare of Indigenous children at risk left to muddle through on its own without counsel,” wrote the judge.

Province ‘considering’ judge’s recommendation

The process was complex, factually and legally, and would have been “very difficult” for the agency to navigate without a lawyer, noted Dalton.

“The Applicant is at risk in the sense that some of the recommendations from the inquiries will likely be directed at or impact Akamihk,” wrote Dalton.

During the hearing, lawyers for the province urged the judge to reject the request for an order or recommendation, arguing that the counsel’s inquiry is tasked with ensuring “neutral and balanced position and to assist witnesses.”

Further, the government argued that a state-funded lawyer was unnecessary because the judge did not make findings of fault or conclusions of law.

In a statement provided to CBC News, a spokesperson for the ministry of justice said it had just received the decision Monday and is currently reviewing it “and considering the judge’s recommendation.”

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