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B.C. attorney general, premier under fire for comments on justice system

B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma is congratulated by Premier David Eby after being sworn in during a ceremony at Government House in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma is congratulated by Premier David Eby after being sworn in during a ceremony at Government House in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
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B.C.'s attorney general recently made comments in the media and online that "risk undermining the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system," according to a letter published by the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

The letter, addressed to Niki Sharma and dated Tuesday, takes issue with comments made to Global News and in a tweet after a sentencing decision in a voyeurism case.

The decision in that case is not publicly available, but the news report says the perpetrator received a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to installing a hidden camera in a bathroom used by an international student living in his home.

Sharma shared that story on Twitter, along with a comment.

"There are no good excuses to be a sexual predator. It’s important that all actors in our justice system understand a trauma-informed approach to dealing with sexual abuse. To the survivors of predators, you’ve done nothing wrong and it is not your fault," she wrote.

Scott Morishita, president of the CBA BC, says the impact of Sharma's comments – regardless of the intent – were to cast doubt on the judge's decision in the case.

"While we understand that news reports are selectively edited and you may have made additional remarks, what was reported – along with your Twitter post – left the impression that you think the sentence is not appropriate, that the sentencing judge is not sufficiently aware of trauma-informed practice, and that the training and education for all judges may be lacking in this area," he wrote.

"These comments, made with the weight of your office, risk undermining the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system."

The letter goes on to say that the attorney general missed an opportunity to educate the public on how decisions are made in criminal cases, including the factors that go in to sentencing and the right of appeal in any case where an error is believed to have been made.

"We are concerned that commenting on a specific case in this manner harms the administration of justice in the province. We urge you to issue a statement addressing these concerns," Morishita wrote.

It alludes to, but does not explicitly mention the raging debate in B.C. over the way the justice system handles violent or so-called repeat offenders – including a push for bail reform and outrage over sentencing and releases from custody – saying the public conversation has demonstrated "misunderstanding" about the way the system functions and how and why decisions are made.

JUSTICE ISSUES BEING POLITICIZED, LAW SOCIETY SAYS

The letter came a day after the Law Society of B.C., which is the regulatory body for the province's lawyers, issued a statement raising similar concerns.

The society took issue with the same statements made by Sharma, characterizing them as "implied criticism" of the judge's decision in the case.

“We recognize there will be different views on whether the sentence passed was appropriate,” Christopher McPherson, the society's president said in a statement posted to its website Monday.

"However, it is our opinion that judges can expect the attorney general to defend the role of the justice system rather than imply that judges are not sufficiently trained and have thereby imposed an inappropriate sentence.”

The statement pointed to the province's professional code of conduct for lawyers, saying that it includes an expectation that judges will "receive the support of the legal profession against unjust criticism and complaint." The code of conduct goes on to say that a lawyer who has a concern or complaint should pursue it through the "appropriate authorities."

The society's statement also expressed concern about how elected officials – including Premier David Eby, who is also a lawyer—have been discussing criminal justice issues.

"We have noticed in recent months that government officials … have made comments on justice system matters that tread on interference with the administration of justice by politicizing justice issues," the statement says, citing bail reform as one example and the outcry after a stabbing in Chinatown as another.

"The government has an important obligation to ensure public safety and we agree that critiques and reviews are key to make improvements. However, criticism by government officials about individual cases, or critiques about judicial decisions without reference to the systemic and legal constraints placed on decision makers, undermines the public’s confidence in the administration of justice."

A spokesperson for the society could not confirm if there have been any complaints made about Sharma or Eby's comments, and whether they could be subject to discipline in the case.

"Anyone can file a complaint with the Law Society about any lawyer. Our staff carefully assesses every concern we are made aware of and, if warranted, investigates and takes action," an emailed statement to CTV News said.

Sharma declined to comment, but a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General provided an emailed statement to CTV News.

"The Attorney General did not criticize a specific ruling or a specific judge. AG Sharma has great respect for the work that judges do in our judicial system. Her comments about the potential benefits of additional training when it comes to situations involving sexual harassment or sexualized violence apply to the entire judicial system," it said.

"Regarding bail reform, the AG has and will continue to advocate for changes needed so that repeat violent criminals are kept off the street and so that people feel safe in their communities.”

CTV News has requested comment from Eby but has not received a response. This story will be updated if one is received.

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