As another week of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry ends and we still haven’t heard from any police officer involved in the investigations of the disappearances, it may be useful to revisit the purpose of public inquiries.  As Supreme Court of Canada Justice Peter Cory put it, “One of the primary functions of public inquiries is fact-finding.  They are often convened in the wake of public shock, horror, disillusionment or scepticism, in order to uncover ‘the truth’…”

My former administrative law professor, Ed Ratushny, emphasizes the importance of the public nature of the hearings in his book, “The Conduct of Public Inquiries: Law, Policy and Practice” at p. 18: “Another feature that enhances public confidence is the transparency of the proceedings.  Most inquiries receive detailed coverage in the media, some are televised, and most now have websites with access to the hearings.  The process of conducting open and public hearings is an important component of restoring public confidence.”

The openness and transparency is an essential element of the process that distinguishes inquiries from civil or criminal trials.  There aren’t any, nor should there be, constraints on the participants in explaining issues to the media.  The media plays the very important role of telling the public what is going on in the inquiry convened for their benefit.

Professor Ratushny also writes, “a commissioner also has broad investigative powers to compel the testimony of witnesses and the production of documents.  The commissioner is not a passive observer, as in a trial, but may ‘go where the evidence leads'”.

This Commission’s first two terms of reference are:

“(a) to conduct hearings, in or near the City of Vancouver, to inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the conduct of the missing women investigations;

(b) consistent with the British Columbia (Attorney General) v. Davies, 2009 BCCA 337, to inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the decision of the Criminal Justice Branch on January 27, 1998, to enter a stay of proceedings on charges against Robert William Pickton of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault;”

Our clients, the families of twenty women who were likely murdered by convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton, are vitally interested in these issues.  They consider the Crown’s 1998 decision to be of crucial importance, because the dropping of those charges allowed Pickton to remain at large for the next four years, killing more women at will.

Here we are near the end of November and there is not yet any indication as to when the police or Crown personnel who actually had the responsibilities for the issues set out in the terms of reference will take the stand.  We’re told that, for reasons that are unclear, the hearings will have to conclude by April 30, 2012.  For the last seven days, we heard evidence from VPD spokesman Doug LePard and after that we are apparently going to hear testimony from two more police reviewers, Inspector Williams and Deputy Chief Evans.  These two police officers weren’t involved in the missing women cases, but just looked at the filesand talked to a few investigators after the fact.

With the clock ticking, there is a real risk in this proceeding that the police review reports, those of LePard, Williams and Evans, will receive much more weight and credence than they deserve.  The families of the victims need this inquiry to fulfil its purpose of conducting a thorough, rigorous and uncompromising search for the truth.  It is high time that the police officers and Crown lawyers involved in these matters started explaining what they were thinking and doing.