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August 14, 2001

McLellan rebuffs lawyers' concerns

Bar association meeting: Says common good should prevail over confidentiality

Sandra Rubin, with files from Janice Tibbetts, Southam News
National Post, with files from Southam News

Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press
Anne McLellan, the Minister of Justice, defended her government's anti-money laundering bill in Saskatoon yesterday saying the public interest takes precedence over solicitor-client privilege.

SASKATOON - Anne McLellan, the Minister of Justice, gave Canada's legal community a sharp setdown yesterday, saying the interests of the public take precedence over the interests of lawyers and she will not exempt them from the government's rigorous new anti-money laundering bill.

Lawyers have been demanding they be excluded from a provision requiring the reporting of cash transactions of $10,000 or more to the federal government, saying it presents a dangerous incursion into solicitor-client privilege.

They confronted Ms. McLellan yesterday at a so-called "bear pit" session at the Canadian Bar Association annual meeting.

"As the government's official legal advisor, with a duty to see the administration of public affairs is in accordance with law, what can you do to preserve the solicitor-client relationship by exempting lawyers from the Proceeds of Crime Act?" asked Greg Del Bigio, a Vancouver criminal lawyer who has been a vocal critic of the legislation.

"Let me make it absolutely clear," shot back Ms. McLellan. "As Minister of Justice, my obligation is to act in the public interest. You have been full participants in this process. We have consulted widely with you as a government. Is there still a disagreement? Yes.

"But ladies and gentleman, I have to tell you here this morning: Lawyers are going to be included in this legislation. They are included in the United Kingdom, they are included in Australia, and they are included in almost every country that is now reviewing and expanding their money-laundering regimes."

Ms. McLellan told the association, which represents 37,000 lawyers, that Canada would be providing "a gaping loophole" if lawyers were excused from the obligation to report suspicious or large-cash transactions.The act was designed to make it more difficult for criminals to legitimize the proceeds of crime by investing it in business.

Failure to do so could result in penalties of up to $2-million, and sentences of five years in prison.

Ms. McLellan also made it clear yesterday that the government will not reverse its decision to give Canada Customs agents the right to randomly open mail leaving or coming in to the country, despite the legal community's protest.

Gordon Maynard, a Vancouver lawyer, told the Justice Minister that the bar association sees mail opening as a violation of privacy as well as yet another incursion into solicitor-client privilege.

He disclosed that a survey of the association's citizenship and law section found "numerous and repeated instances of seizure, inspection of materials, and turning over of materials to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

"These materials had nothing to do with any prohibited materials, there was no breach of the law, the materials were clearly covered by solicitor-client privilege. You are, in effect, the government's lawyer, Minister. What are you going to do to prevent abuses by the government of legitimate privacy interests?"

"Again, my interest is to protect the public interest," said Ms. McLellan.

"I think, in fairness to my colleague, the Minister of National Revenue, and the people in customs, they act in good faith. They act in the firm belief they are discharging their duties in the public interest."

Ms. McLellan was asked about remarks made on Sunday by Beverley McLachlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who said the court is strained to the limit and should not be obliged to hear mandatory appeals that can be waste of valuable resources. Such a change would require an amendment to the Criminal Code. "If the Chief Justice wants to raise this issue with me, she can," said Ms. McLellan.

One day after Madam Justice McLachlin said the administration of justice at the Supreme Court could be dragged down by "critically" cramped quarters, sources confirmed that the Federal Court will moved out of the Supreme Court and into a building of its own. It is expected the new building for the Federal Court, which hears cases challenging the federal government, would cost at least $80-million.

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