For St. John’s, Nfld., lawyer and prominent Conservative party donor Francis (Frank) Fowler, Brian Mulroney’s 1984 election victory presented a welcome change in government—and in personal fortunes. Since 1967, Fowler’s name had been on a list kept by the federal justice ministry of so-called standing agents—private lawyers hired on contract to act on behalf of Ottawa. But, for 17 years, as Liberal governments held power in Ottawa, Fowler received few calls. Instead, most federal cases went to Liberal lawyers—among them Clyde Wells, now Newfoundland’s premier. But since Mulroney’s victory, the federal government has hired Fowler’s firm to prosecute most of the drug cases in Newfoundland, work that earned the firm $349,761 over 12 months between 1988 and 1989 alone. “When the government changed, they were phased out, and we were phased in,” said Fowler. “It is a form of patronage.”
Federal governments of every stripe have hired private agents for decades. But since 1984, their number has doubled to more than 1,000—while restraints on civil-service hiring
have left the number of staff federal Crown attorneys frozen at about 120. Yet the agents cost Ottawa $27 million in fiscal 1988-1989, almost triple the $9.2 million that the Liberals spent during their last year in office. Much of that increase has been driven by a ballooning requirement to prosecute drug offenders.
But critics attack Ottawa’s growing reliance on private prosecutors on several fronts. One is cost. In contrast to the typical $55,000-a-year salary of a Crown attorney, one Toronto standing agent, doing the same kind of work, billed the government for $174,000 last year. Declared Toronto defence lawyer Paul Copeland: “It increases the deficit without increasing the number of civil servants.” In Vancouver, defence lawyer Phillip Scarisbrick said that agents selected on the basis of their political connections do not always have the experience necessary to win convictions. He added, “Defence lawyers run rings around them.”
Last week, associate deputy Justice Minister Douglas Rutherford defended the use of the agents. “These are highly qualified criminal lawyers,” he said. Indeed, agents prosecuted a complex case in which two men were convicted of trafficking cocaine in Fredericton last month. But there is little disagreement among lawyers on one point: federal assignments come and go with the changing of the political guard in Ottawa.
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