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P.E.I. MLAs question why public trustee would not appear at committee

Clara Henderson, director of family law and court services for the Department of Justice, provided an update to the public accounts committee Wednesday on work being done to address concerns raised by the auditor general about how funds of the Island's most vulnerable residents are managed. (Teresa Wright/ The Guardian)
Clare Henderson, director of family law and court services for the Department of Justice. (Teresa Wright/ The Guardian)

The department of justice is undergoing a comprehensive review of public trustee offices in other jurisdictions in light of concerns raised by the auditor general about how the funds of the Island's most vulnerable residents are managed.

The public accounts committee received a update Wednesday from the justice department on actions being taken to address the auditor general’s findings in her 2017 audit of the office of the public trustee.

Clare Henderson, director of family law and court services for the Department of Justice, said the review is looking at legislative regimes to determine best practices to support vulnerable Islanders.

“The auditor general’s report provided several recommendations for improvement in both process and procedure within the office,” Henderson said.

“The government is committed to undertaking a legislative review that would provide a more up-to-date framework for the office to use in terms of providing support for vulnerable Islanders.”
Auditor General Jane MacAdam’s review looked at how the public trustee it manages the $9.4 million in assets it holds in trust for 300 Islanders deemed medically incapable of making their own financial decisions.

She found significant issues with how these funds are controlled, including "inadequate management review and oversight of trust accounts."

She found one instance where lack of oversight meant the trustee was unaware a client had died 12 years ago and had been charging the dead client's account the office's annual fee.

MacAdam further found the office's accounting system woefully inefficient, with client files disorganized and missing key information.

Accounting errors for the office's 2014 financials totalled $1 million.

Henderson told the committee some additional staffing has been added to the office, including one full-time solicitor position and some temporary staff to do develop better organization for office files.

But during the meeting, Opposition MLAs began to question why the province’s public trustee himself, Mark Gallant, did not attend to answer questions about the auditor’s findings.

After all, they noted, it was Gallant who was called to appear before the committee.

Henderson explained that Gallant was appointed last week as acting prothonotary for the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of P.E.I.

Now that he is an officer of the judiciary, it is no longer appropriate for him to appear before committee, Henderson said.

“Absent very exceptional circumstances, it is not appropriate for a judicial officer to be seen to be called in front a legislative committee because it calls into question the independence of the judiciary who are sometimes called to make decisions that government and the legislative branch may not necessarily agree with.”

However, a judge has previously been called to and did appear before a legislative committee in P.E.I.

In 2014, the Standing Committee on Health, Social Development and Seniors called for a judge to speak to a probe they were conducting at the time on domestic violence. Provincial Court Justice Jeff Lantz answered the summons and provided a briefing to the committee.

The public accounts committee is now seeking clarification on its authority to call officers of the court to legislative committees in light of the fact the public trustee did not comply with his summons due to his recent appointment to a judicial role.

Opposition MLA Sidney MacEwen says he believes it is important that the committee pursue this.

“It was my understanding the public accounts committee could call, basically, anybody except for the lieutenant governor to committee so I was curious as to why that public trustee couldn’t appear today… I think we need clarification going forward.

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