Inquiry grants protection to sex workers

Sex workers will be allowed to testify at the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton murder case without having their names published, the former judge overseeing the hearings ruled Thursday.

VANCOUVER — Sex workers will be allowed to testify at the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton murder case without having their names published, the former judge overseeing the hearings ruled Thursday.

The witnesses also don’t have to appear in person to be cross-examined by police lawyers.

Commissioner Wally Oppal granted an application to give sex workers and sexual assault victims a series of protections designed to encourage them to come forward. He said the value of their testimony outweighs concerns that the process would be unfair.

“I think the overall objective here has to be to encourage those people who feel marginal and who may feel intimidated by the process — and we’ve heard ample evidence of that — to come forward,” said Oppal.

“I think it’s in the public interest that they come forward and participate.”

Jason Gratl, an independent lawyer appointed to represent the broad interests of the Downtown Eastside, put forward an application that included a number of measures to protect vulnerable witnesses — all of which were adopted by Oppal.

Under the proposal, the names of sex workers and sexual assault victims will be covered by publication bans. They will be allowed to provide evidence through written affidavits, preventing aggressive cross-examination by lawyers for the police, prosecutors or others.

Participants such as the police will be able to apply to cross-examine witnesses if they can demonstrate that’s necessary, particularly for witnesses that allege wrongdoing. If Oppal decides a cross-examination is warranted, the witness would then have a choice: appear in person or withdraw their affidavit.

The Vancouver police, its union and the RCMP opposed the application, specifically the blanket order allowing affidavit testimony.