Family of Montreal man shot by SPVM struggled to pay legal fees, while city covered nearly $200K for officers

Advocates are calling on the Quebec government to provide compensation for families taking part in coroners' inquests.

Advocates call on government to provide compensation for families taking part in coroners' inquests

Johanne Coriolan, left, a family member of Pierre Coriolan, is consoled following a news conference in Montreal in February 2018. After months of fighting, the family received a total of $5,000 to cover their legal fees, which advocates say isn't nearly enough. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The City of Montreal spent $190,601 on lawyers representing police officers at the coroner's inquest looking into the fatal shooting of Pierre Coriolan, while his family received only $5,000 to cover their legal fees, a civil rights group has found. 

The stark contrast, advocates say, illustrates and reinforces inequalities in Quebec's justice system.

Coriolan was 58 years old and struggling with mental health issues when he was tasered and then shot three times by Montreal police officers in his apartment three years ago.

Six SPVM officers were involved in the incident.

A coroner's inquest into his death began last February.

According to testimony and evidence shown at the inquest, a neighbour told the 911 dispatcher about Coriolan's mental health issues, but police said they felt threatened because he was holding a screwdriver in one hand and a knife in the other. 

Each of the six SPVM officers had a contingent of lawyers representing them during the inquest, and most of them were at least partly publicly funded, documents obtained by the Ligue des droits et libertés through an access to information request revealed. 

According to the documents, the City of Montreal reimbursed the officers for part of their legal fees, adding up to a total of $190,601— and that was just for the first two weeks of the inquest.

The Montreal Police Brotherhood and the provincial government also provided officers with lawyers for the inquiry. 

Lynda Khelil, spokesperson for the Ligue des droits et libertés, says the documents confirm a huge discrepancy in the system.

"We denounce the lack of empathy and the lack of support for families of victims killed by the police in Quebec," said Khelil. 

Do families need lawyers at inquests?

Coriolan's family had to fight to get the $5,000 in compensation they received from the provincial government earlier this year, and that wasn't nearly enough to cover their fees, she said. 

Khelil said it's rare for families involved with a coroner's inquest to get any compensation at all. 

That's why she is calling on the provincial government to adopt a regulation under the Loi sur la recherche des causes et des circonstances des décès, that would allow families involved in a coroner's inquest to be compensated at the coroner's discretion.

That regulation was first called for in 2013, but has yet to be adopted. 

When asked about it by Québec solidaire MNA Alexandre Leduc in the National Assembly last week, Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault put the blame on the former Liberal government and said she would look into adopting the regulation soon.

She said families should keep in mind that coroner's inquests are not trials and they are therefore not obliged to have a lawyer present. 

"Yes, we want families to be as supported as possible, sometimes it can be daunting when you arrive at a public inquest and you have police officers, the municipality, all these people armed with lawyers, and you feel worried because it looks like an imbalance," said Guilbault​​.

But, she said, families have the right to ask their own questions, through the coroner, to get to the bottom of what happened without a lawyer present. 

Alain Arsenault, a lawyer who represented the Coriolan family, said it is nearly impossible for a family to get their concerns heard without a lawyer present. 

"It's through a coroner's inquest that we learn exactly what happened," said Arsenault. 

"For the family, it's important to know under what circumstances Mr. Coriolan died. The family needs to know, and not just the family but the public." 

Khelil added that, when a family is grieving and searching for answers, they should not have to worry about legal fees putting them in a precarious financial situation on top of that. 

"We ask the government to give the families the same means they are actually giving to the police and the public institutions during these inquests," Khelil said.

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With files from Lauren McCallum