The Manitoba public inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair has once again ground to a halt, frustrating at least one lawyer involved in the case.


Phoenix Sinclair, seen in an undated photograph, died in 2005 at the age of five. A public inquiry, which has been examining the circumstances surrounding her death, is now held over at least until mid-April. (Phoenix Sinclair inquiry)

Inquiry hearings are now on hold at least until mid-April, while officials sort out a conflict-of-interest issue.

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry has been examining how Manitoba's child welfare system failed to protect Phoenix, a former foster child who was beaten to death in 2005 after social workers gave her back to her biological mother, Samantha Kematch.

Both Kematch and Karl McKay, Kematch's common-law partner, were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison.

The public inquiry has already faced several lengthy delays due to legal wrangling, frustrating those who are involved in the proceedings.

"All the people involved, of course, all want to see it come to some conclusion, right? So nobody's happy about it being delayed," Jeff Gindin, the lawyer representing Phoenix's biological father at the inquiry, told CBC News.

"We've all got this time set aside. As far as the lawyers go, we don't have other cases slotted in."

Conflict-of-interest concerns

The latest delay comes as inquiry officials deal with a conflict-of-interest issue involving another lawyer, Kris Saxberg, who has represented several Manitoba child and family services agencies as well as the supervisor who closed Phoenix's file prior to her death.

Inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes said last month that Saxberg appeared to be in a conflict of interest in representing multiple clients, based on conflicting testimony from some of those individuals.

Hughes recently asked the Law Society of Manitoba for an opinion, and the society agreed that there is a conflict.

In a letter released Wednesday, Saxberg informed the inquiry that some of his clients will be getting new lawyers.

Hughes has given Saxberg until Friday afternoon to deliver his response to questions about his potential continued or limited involvement in the inquiry.

Hughes will then issue a decision on the matter next Tuesday.

The inquiry was originally set to conclude in May, but that date will probably be pushed back.

The provincial government recently extended the deadline for Hughes's final report by six months to September and may be forced to push it back further due to the most recent delay.

"It is frustrating … but in terms of the final result, I hope that a bit of delay here and there doesn't affect the actual decision we're all waiting for and the recommendations that will come out," Gindin said.

"I mean, obviously it's nice to have recommendations as soon as possible."

Inquiry's price tag grows

Meanwhile, the inquiry's price tag has grown to more than $6 million and is expected to keep growing.

The province has approved another $1.4 million, for the fiscal year that ends March 31, to fund the inquiry.

That's on top of $4.7 million originally budgeted, and more money is expected in the upcoming fiscal year.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers says he is willing to spend whatever is necessary to ensure Hughes can complete the inquiry and come up with recommendations.

"I think anytime you're dealing with the protection of children, it's worth spending the money to accomplish that," Struthers told CBC News on Thursday.

"We've said to him [Hughes] very clearly that he has the tools necessary to be thorough with this inquiry. We were not going to pull the rug out from under his feet part-way through."

Struthers admitted that the inquiry's numerous delays have added to the price tag.

With files from The Canadian Press