Lawyers for homeless seeking $1 million in court costs

Both the City of Abbotsford and counsel for the homeless say they are entitled to costs stemming from last year's landmark trial.

Legal costs related to a lawsuit between the City of Abbotsford and lawyers for the homeless were the subject of a hearing this week.

Local taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $1 million in court costs related to last year’s homelessness trial if a Supreme Court Justice rules in favours of a group of social activists and their lawyers.

Nearly a year after Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson declared parts of two City of Abbotsford bylaws unconstitutional, lawyers for the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS) and the city were back in court this week to contest who will pay the legal bills for the lengthy,complex case.

In a statement of claim filed last month, lawyers for the DWS contest that the city should have to pay $1.1 million in legal costs, along with additional “special costs,” because their lawsuit was “substantially successful” and had a “significant and widespread societal impact.”

Those lawyers from Pivot Legal Society acted pro bono for the plaintiffs, but contend that the law holds that it would be “contrary to the interests of justice” to ask either counsel or the litigants to pay the costs of a claim.

They say that last October’s decision advanced the law in several respects, and established “a constitutional minimum standard that requires municipalities to consider the needs of homeless people” when developing their policies. They say that has led to changes in other B.C. cities.

“This was a hard-fought, complex legal battle that spanned nearly two years,” the claim says.

The plaintiffs also say special costs of an unspecified sum should be awarded because of the city’s conduct and “litigation strategy of delay and difficulty.”

They said the city’s conduct that prompted the litigation was “reprehensible,” citing the spreading of chicken manure in a homeless camp.

They said a previous court decision had given the homeless the right to sleep in public spaces, but the city sought to “systemically undermine these rights,” prompting the lawsuit.

In its statement to the court, the city said that the law holds that a party that wins three-quarters of the issues in a dispute is successful, and that the DWS and their lawyers didn’t meet that threshold.

Instead, the city says it was the successful party at the trial. It points to the fact that of the five declarations sought by the plaintiffs, only one was granted on a limited basis. It also noted that most of the bylaws in question were upheld as constitutional, and that other alleged breaches of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms weren’t found to have occurred.

The dueling claims of victory are not new: immediately following last year’s ruling both parties said they were happy with Hinkson’s decision.

Mayor Henry Braun said he was pleased permanent camps on city land were not deemed a constitutional right, while plaintiffs were pleased to be allowed to camp in parks, but not happy to have to move along each morning.

The city has not disclosed its costs in fighting the lawsuit, but the latest Statement of Financial Information showed amounts paid to its law firm rose sharply in 2015 and was approximately $300,000 higher than most previous years.

Hinkson was due to hear submissions for three days beginning Tuesday morning. The outcome of the hearing was not available as of press time.