British Columbia

Court denies Auditor General access to BC Rail documents

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled the province's auditor general does not have the right to see all the documents linked to the cost of the BC Rail trial and the decision to pay $6 million in legal fees for David Basi and Bobby Virk.
Dave Basi, on the right, and Bobby Virk, on the left, both pleaded guilty in the BC Rail case after the government agreed to pay their $6 million legal bill. (CBC )

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled the province's auditor general does not have the right to see all the documents linked to the cost of the BC Rail trial and the decision to pay $6 million in legal fees for David Basi and Bobby Virk.

Auditor General John Doyle had gone to court last year seeking an order for access to records and information, arguing the information was essential for an audit of the government's handling of the BC Rail case.

But on Tuesday B.C.'s Chief Justice Robert Bauman ruled that allowing Doyle to see all the unredacted documents linked to the case would violate the fundamental principle of lawyer-client privilege, which is a cornerstone of the judicial system.

"Solicitor-client privilege, as the case law repeatedly reminds us, is fundamental to the proper functioning of our legal system. It is virtually an absolute privilege and must remain so," wrote Bauman in his decision.

"Solicitor-client privilege is not a lawyer’s 'trick' to avoid proper scrutiny of her client’s conduct or the steps taken on his or her behalf during the retainer, it is a critical civil right.

"All citizens must be able to freely discuss their legal positions with their lawyers and to take frank advice thereon, secure in the knowledge that this relationship — that between solicitor and client — is as sacred as any secular business relationship can be.

"It would be wrong to conclude that the result in this case represents the triumph of secrecy over transparency and accountability. It rather represents the reaffirmation of a principle which is a cornerstone value in our democracy and which has been so for hundreds of years."

Auditor General sought order from court

Basi and Virk pleaded guilty in October 2010 to breach of trust and receiving benefits in connection with the 2003 sale of BC Rail. Their surprise guilty pleas brought an end to the lengthy trial, and the two former ministerial aides were sentenced to spend the next 24 months under house arrest.

The government's decision to cover the pair's legal costs, estimated at $6 million, sparked widespread outrage. The cost of the trial in total is believed to be about $18 million, but could not be determined precisely without the defence cost details, argued Doyle.

Since then, Doyle had been fighting to get the details of the agreements publicly released, along with the details of other deals reached with other government employees.