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Inquests are a slog for affected families

Just over a year ago, Mark Potvin stood at an inquest into the death of his son and questioned the last people to see him alive. The Ontario father represented his family while facts were laid out about how RCMP Const.

Just over a year ago, Mark Potvin stood at an inquest into the death of his son and questioned the last people to see him alive.

The Ontario father represented his family while facts were laid out about how RCMP Const. Michael Potvin drowned in Mayo’s Stewart River on July 13, 2010.

At the inquest the family did not have a lawyer.

Potvin is in the uncommon position of being able to know what’s awaiting the families of Teresa Scheunert and Mary Johnny.

The two women died on separate occasions after receiving care at the Watson Lake Hospital. A single inquest into their deaths was originally planned for March and has now been pushed back until the summer.

Scheunert’s family has publicly raised concerns about their inability to find a lawyer to represent them. They’re also unsure of how to cover the cost of coming from Alberta to the Yukon if they have to represent themselves.

Both the Yukon Hospital Corporation and the two doctors involved will have lawyers representing them, alongside a lawyer working for the coroner.

In an interview yesterday, Potvin said he doesn’t regret not having a lawyer.

“I explored the idea, but quite frankly, they’re just too expensive for what you’re going to get. An inquest is a non-binding, non-fault finding inquiry,” he said from his home outside Ottawa.

“So there’s no benefit to hiring a lawyer. It’s not like a civil case where you’re going to have some money to be made out of this. It’s an entirely different paradigm.”

That doesn’t mean the process was an easy one.

The computer programmer estimates he spent 100 hours of his own time preparing for the inquest.

Without a lawyer, Potvin said he had to work to find other sources of help.

In the end he turned to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. That organization gave him a sounding board and someone to bounce ideas off of.

“He couldn’t represent me, and he couldn’t give me legal advice, but I could talk to him. He would at least talk to me when I had problems, particularly legal problems, and say, ‘Well, they should be doing this or they should be doing that.’

“But he couldn’t give me legal advice. At least he could keep me on the right track,” Potvin said.

The hardest part comes early in the process when the sides are discussing what information will be made public, he said.

“The biggest part was disclosure, getting all the facts. I kept running into privacy restrictions. Every time I’d want something I’d get told, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t know because that’s restricted.”

He eventually did get all the information he needed, Potvin said.

The NDP has raised concerns about the fairness of the process, if the Scheunert and Johnny families don’t have legal representation.

Health critic Jan Stick called for the government to provide some form of support.

“What we do want is at minimum a basic amount of legal support,” she said.

Stick points to a number of pre-inquest meetings that are being planned. The families should have someone to turn to for help understanding what is going on, she said.

But, for families, the cost of an inquest goes beyond the cost of a lawyer.

Scheunert’s sister and two daughters have said they would like to come to Whitehorse for the hearing.

That means things like flights and hotel rooms.

In Potvin’s case, his costs were covered by an RCMP family fund set up to support members in need.

No one has come forward to offer Scheunert’s family help, said Scheunert’s sister, Wanda Zimmerman, this week.

Potvin estimates it cost about $2,000 for a flight from Ontario and $1,000 for accommodations.

The Potvin inquest lasted about a week.

The Scheunert/Johnny inquest is scheduled for two weeks.

Stick points out that witnesses called by a coroner for an inquest have all of their costs covered by the government.

The most recent inquest, into the death of a Porter Creek family and their friend from carbon monoxide poisoning, cost between $60,000 and $70,0000, said Department of Justice spokesperson Dan Cable.

That includes witnesses’ expenses and other costs associated with running a hearing.

A witness list hasn’t been set for the upcoming inquest, Cable said.

The territory averages about 1.5 inquests a year.

Depending on where you live in Canada, it may be possible for a family to get help with legal representation at an inquest.

British Columbia legal aid does not cover inquests. But Ontario does, for those who can prove financial need.

In the Yukon, inquests are not covered under the mandate of legal aid.

Nils Clarke, executive director of Yukon Legal Services Society, said they are open to considering the expansion of services in the future.

“However, at this juncture, YLSS has been chronically underfunded for many years in relation to its core areas of coverage. YLSS has lobbied for many years to address this vital access to justice issue. We perceive that we have made some headway in having a reasonable level of core funding confirmed for the upcoming fiscal year,” Clarke said in a statement.

“However, YLSS will not likely know of the decision of our territorial government until the spring sitting of the legislature. If a reasonable and sustainable level of core funding is not supported, then all current legal aid services will have to be reviewed.”

Stick said she would support expanding legal aid’s coverage. She pointed out that, since Scheunert’s family is from Alberta, it is unlikely they would qualify for legal aid in the Yukon.

Potvin said he wishes the families the best of luck.

“It’s really not that hard a process, it’s just a tedious process.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at