Surrey taxpayers will pay the legal costs of a city councillor who is being sued for defamation in a trial that is scheduled to open in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster next week.
Businessman Harjit Atwal is suing Councillor Tom Gill over comments made in a local newspaper in 2010.
City solicitor Craig MacFarlane told the Vancouver Sun Tuesday that the decision to pay Gill’s costs is based on a bylaw under which the city indemnifies employees and elected officials “against claims for damages arising out of the performance of their duties.”
MacFarlane said the city relied on legal advice in making the decision to cover Gill’s costs:
He said the decision was made by Surrey administrators, not city council.
He said that such decisions don’t need to go to council for approval as long as there is a local bylaw that follows the requirements of the Local Government Act.
That provincial law includes a section “ to defend an action or prosecution brought against a person in connection with the exercise or intended exercise of the person’s powers or the performance or intended performance of the person’s duties or functions.”
Atwal is alleging defamation over comments made about a shooting at a Sikh wedding, in 2010. Atwal was injured in the leg. Maninder Gill, a relative of Tom Gill, faces criminal charges in connection with the incident, the trial for which began last year.
When asked IF if he was comfortable having taxpayers cover the cost of a lawsuit related to his public comments about a family member’s problems, Tom Gill cited the city bylaw, “which based upon certain conditions, indemnifies Council against claims for damages arising out of performance of their duties.”
Jim Zeeben, a spokesman for the B.C. Justice Ministry, said under B.C. law for provincial employees, “coverage is limited to conduct in the performance or exercise of the duties and powers of the person’s position.” He added that it doesn’t include “everything that happens while at work, or “conduct that is unrelated to the duties and powers of the position.”
The statement of claim in the Surrey lawsuit alleges that the quotes in the article defamed Atwal by, among other things, alleging “that Harjit Atwal wounded Maninder Gill with a knife” during the incident.
That, in turn, “seriously damaged” Atwal’s reputation, caused him “distress and embarrassment,” and resulted in social and economic “damage.”
Tom Gill’s statement of defence alleges he made “fair comment” and spoke “honestly and fairly, based on true facts on a matter of public interest.”