Desmond inquiry to be long, complex but important, says professor

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Desmond inquiry to be long, complex but important, says professor

A law professor says an inquiry into the Desmond family's deaths is overdue and will have "immense positive implications" for public policy in Nova Scotia.

One year ago today, Lionel Desmond killed his mother Brenda Desmond, his wife Shanna Desmond and their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah Desmond before killing himself.

"I absolutely believe that the inquiry is a very important opportunity to look at the issues of family violence, gendered violence and also violence that may well be connected to the person's former employment and his mental health difficulties," said Archie Kaiser, a professor at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law.

The province's chief medical examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, called the inquiry last week. Bowes said at the time he had been reflecting on the case carefully, and concluded that an inquiry could lead to change.

"I think we must assign in our minds a scale, an importance of an issue. I am mindful of the fact that this is an important issue, that this has a scale that reaches well beyond Nova Scotia's borders," Bowes said.

Complex investigation

Desmond was a veteran of the Afghanistan war who had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kaiser said the inquiry will likely be broad, and won't just examine Desmond's PTSD treatment.

"There's a whole nexus of issues here that are eminently worthy of careful public scrutiny."

This inquiry was called under the Fatalities Investigation Act, which the medical examiner described as "the only button I can push."

The key difference between that and a public inquiry, said Kaiser, is that it's limited to fatalities, whereas public inquiries can explore anything that can be turned into law.

The inquiry should be open to the public, although there is a provision that the judge can move matters involving public security or intimate or personal matters behind closed doors.

"It's hard to think at the outset of anything which should be exempted from public scrutiny," said Kaiser.

Long process

With so many elements to cover, the inquiry will also take time. Bowes used the example of the province's last fatality inquiry, which was an examination into the death of Howard Hyde, who died in a jail cell in 2007.

He pointed out it took months to hold the inquiry, then the judge needed time to write her report and then the recommendations needed to be implemented.

"I think the people of Nova Scotia are certainly looking at a low number of years from this moment to recommendations being actually put on the ground," Bowes said.

Kaiser agreed it will take time, but said it's impossible to estimate what might happen in the months to come.

"Nothing's going to happen overnight. But the case, assuming it's examined properly and fully, has the chance of providing some useful and important recommendations for public policy in Nova Scotia."

Quality review completed

The case has already sparked a quality review within the health authority about the care Lionel Desmond received.

But that report was internal, and the public will never know what changes were made.

Bowes himself does not know the outcome of that review, and said it's limited in scope. He said there are still too many questions that need to be investigated.

"For example, a quality review cannot pose the question, 'Is this activity adequately resourced?' My understanding is that a quality review really can't ask system-wide issues or if it can be better organized."

Lionel Desmond's sisters have been calling for an inquiry ever since the deaths.

When she was told it was going ahead, Chantel Desmond said she's hopeful it will shed light on "what the province did, and what they didn't do" as well as the federal government's mistreatment of veterans.