Sunday, December 24, 2000

Darcy Henton

Alliance Leader Day settles defamation lawsuit launched by Alberta lawyer

EDMONTON (CP) — Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day settled out of court Friday with an Alberta lawyer suing him over comments about his defence of a man accused of possessing child pornography. The settlement of the defamation suit, filed by Red Deer lawyer Lorne Goddard, came one day after the latest in a series of legal rulings against Day's defence team.

Goddard, a school board trustee who considered quitting law and leaving the city after Day's remarks, said Friday he was happy the matter has been resolved.

"I am just relieved," he said. "It is a great burden off the family's shoulders."

He added that as a lawyer and a local politician he felt it was important to stand up to Day's comments.

"The criticism of me would have discouraged others from getting involved in local politics," he said.

No terms of the settlement were revealed but lawyers for Goddard said they would file a discontinuance of the legal action against the former member of the Alberta legislature.

Day could not be reached for comment.

"It's done. He is pleased we're moving forward," Alliance spokesman Phil von Finckenstein said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Goddard had sought $600,000 in damages over critical comments Day made about his legal defence of a convicted pedophile.

At issue was a letter Day wrote, as MLA for Red Deer North, to the Red Deer Advocate newspaper in April 1999. Goddard also sued the Red Deer Advocate, but both sides reached a settlement in October.

Goddard had argued in court for his client's right to possess child pornography. Day's letter questioned Goddard's views on the issue in light of the fact that he is a public school trustee.

Day's lawyers put forth a series of legal and constitutional defences and challenges, but all were dismissed by Justice Keith Ritter, who was charged to preside over a two-week trial slated to begin Jan. 15.

The latest setback came Thursday when Ritter ruled that the case was too complex to go before a six-member jury.

A week earlier, Ritter ruled that Day could not expand the definition of qualified privilege to cover comments that were political in nature.

The judge also dismissed as unreasonable Day's argument that child pornography cases are so abhorrent that a lawyer's reputation would be tarnished if he argued in court that a client has a constitutional right to possess it.

"Reasonable people would not hate, or despise or subject a person to ridicule, shun or avoid that person or consider that person to be a lesser person … because that person has made a constitutional argument in a criminal court," Ritter stated in a written ruling.

Rob Armstrong, one of Goddard's lawyers, said he couldn't discuss any of the conditions of the settlement, including whether it contained any condition that required the terms to be kept confidential.

But he said that given the court's rejection of two of Day's defences, he was not surprised to see a settlement.

"I wouldn't say it came completely out of the blue," he said. "Two of his defences were disallowed by the trial judge. Their challenge to one of our experts was dismissed. The last thing that happened was they lost their jury. The trial judge was going to hear it alone."

Goddard's fellow lawyers had raised almost $50,000 to help finance the suit, saying the case raised important issues for lawyers who defend clients whose views differ from their own.

Goddard said he will be returning the money with his heartfelt thanks. He was also grateful to his main lawyer Virginia May.

"I was super impressed by the people who stood behind me," he said. "It was a long, hard grind and without those people's support it couldn't have happened."

Bart Johnson, an Alberta Justice Department spokesman, said the government would pay Day's legal bills using the taxpayer-supported risk management fund — a $35-million-dollar pot of money set aside to cover members of the legislature and government officials.

He refused to say how much money will be paid out, but the fund has a $1 million deductible, meaning Alberta taxpayers are on the hook for the first million dollars of any settlement and associated legal costs. "Alberta Justice won't be divulging terms of the settlement," said Johnson. "I won't be discussing any of the terms of the agreement."

Johnson said he wasn't sure if the specific amount of the settlement will eventually be published in the government's annual public accounts.

Day's use of the fund has been harshly criticized by Alberta's opposition parties.

Liberal justice critic Gary Dickson said it is ironic that Day — a self-described champion of taxpayers — wants to use public funds to pay his legal bills.

"Mr. Day, who always boasted about his concern for our sweat-soaked loonies when he was provincial treasurer, seems to be awfully casual with our money now," he said.

New Democrat Leader Raj Pannu said it was wrong for taxpayers to backstop Day's remarks.

"This is full of contradictions," he said. "A man who took money away from the poor in order to protect the bottom line of the province now makes use of public funds … to rescue himself from a problem that he created."

Premier Ralph Klein couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

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Created: December 24, 2000
Last modified: January 17, 2001
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