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Photographs of missing women are displayed as Commissioner Wally Oppal takes notes during the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver in January. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The B.C. government says simply can't afford to pay the legal fees of groups wanting to participate in the Pickton inquiry but who are not relatives of the serial killer's victims.

Commissioner Wally Oppal had written B.C.'s attorney general earlier this month saying it's unfair for the government to require groups representing sex trade workers, First Nations and Downtown Eastside residents to pay their own legal fees.

But David Loukidelis, the province's deputy attorney general, responded in a brief letter to Oppal that the province doesn't have the money.

"The government has limited financial resources," he wrote in a letter released by Oppal's office on Friday.

Loukidelis explained the ministry is having a tough time meeting its requirements, including paying for court administration staff, sheriffs, Crown prosecutors and a full complement of Provincial Court judges.

"The attorney general does not believe that public funding of multiple teams of lawyers for inquiry participants, other than the families of missing and murdered women, is a higher priority than such other matters," he said.

Funding should be spread broadly

Oppal will oversee hearings examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Robert Pickton as he spent years preying on sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, until his arrest in 2002.

Pickton was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, although the DNA from 33 women was found on his farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He told police that he had killed 49 women.

Oppal will also conduct a less-formal study commission into broader issues of missing and murdered women in the province, including in the north along a stretch of road known as the Highway of Tears.

Oppal had said in his eight-page letter that the funding should be spread more broadly than just victims' families.

"Failure to fund the participant organizations would leave disenfranchised women and victims in a clearly unfair position at the hearing," Oppal wrote.

He recommended that 13 participants get public money to cover legal fees to participate in the inquiry.

Loukidelis responded that the Public Inquiry Act doesn't require public funding for participating groups.

AG raps commissioner

He also rapped Oppal, saying the commissioner — a former judge and former attorney general — was overstepping his bounds by even recommending the funding be provided.

"The commission's terms of reference do not require such funding, nor do they authorize the commissioner to make recommendations regarding such funding."

Loukidelis said the attorney general's office believes the inquiry can be conducted in such a way that participants shouldn't require lawyers.

As well, he noted that Oppal can use lawyers working for the commission to play an active role in examining documents and prompting evidence.

But Oppal had already dismissed that suggestion, calling it "untenable."

He said the range of opinions among sex trade workers, First Nations and community activists in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is simply too vast for one lawyer to represent them all.

Oppal did not comment on the letter Friday.