National security lawyers decry lack of support for defending accused terrorists

posted on March 23, 2008 | in Category Security Certificates | PermaLink

By Colin Perkel (CP)
Source: The Toronto Sun
URL: [link]
Date: March 23, 2008

TORONTO - Lawyers tasked under Canada's newly rewritten national security law with testing top secret evidence against alleged terrorists say they fear a lack of resources, including things as simple as an office with a secretary to type letters, could damage their ability to do the job.

As a result, several of the 19 special advocates are pressing the government to provide the help they say will be critical to their ability to function.

"Something like an office of the special advocate is going to be essential," said Gordon Cameron, a special advocate who was outside counsel to the committee that oversees the country's spy service.

"There's nothing in place right now. The special advocates wish things were further advanced."

Under the legislation passed last month, the elite group of lawyers will gain access to top secret information Canada's spy agency, CSIS, has against a suspected terrorist so they can challenge its validity in front of a judge in closed hearings.

Five men with alleged terrorism links have spent years in Canadian legal limbo based on such unseen evidence.
The legislation is loosely based on the British model, which now includes a separate office for lawyers involved in national security cases.

However, a spokesman for the Justice Department said the government had no plans for such an office.

Instead, said Chris Girouard, that role will fall to a mix of the Justice Department, the country's immigration board and the agency that provides administrative services for federal courts.

That isn't sitting well with the special advocates.

"We've adopted a model from another jurisdiction that itself learned a separate support office was necessary," Cameron said.

"Why we wouldn't learn from that lesson, I don't know."

Lorne Waldman, a special advocate who studied the British model, said he would wait to see how things worked in Canada but added he's worried about the ability of the already stretched agencies to take on the additional burden.

"A stand alone office would be the best way to ensure that the special advocates will be able to adequately fulfil their role," Waldman said.

Because the material they handle is highly classified, the advocates are barred from discussing it with anyone else, a situation that could leave them isolated from advice, help and knowledge of other cases.

It could also mean something as mundane as writing a letter could be tricky because a secretary would need special clearance to type it.

Lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, who has extensive experience with secret material as counsel at the inquiry into the American rendition of Canadian Maher Arar to torture in Syria, said special advocates can be effective.

However, given that they face "the unlimited resource" of the government, they will need solid support, he said.

Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh said it would be "a huge mistake and irresponsible" for the government to rely on secondments from various departments rather than create a separate office for the lawyers.

In pushing through the law, the Stephen Harper government acknowledged the group would need logistical and other help to function effectively.

"The minister of justice shall ensure that special advocates are provided with adequate administrative support and resources," the law states.

The advocates complain there is little sign of that happening.

"Nobody knows what they're doing, nobody knows what resources are going to be around, nobody knows where we're going to access the material," said Paul Copeland, who has represented two of the five men currently detained as security risks.

Another member of the group, Brian Gover, said it's critical there be a central, accessible database.

That would allow the lawyers to "develop an institutional memory," learning from positions the government has taken in the past, to ensure cases aren't seen as a "a one off," he said.

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