Tory MPs seek $250K for legal costs in robocalls case

Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton says a challenge of the 2011 federal election results in seven Conservative ridings is a "zero-sum game" being fought by people who can't accept the fact the Conservatives won the last election.

Hamilton was arguing in Federal Court in Ottawa Tuesday, where a group of voters backed by the Council of Canadians are alleging a systematic campaign of voter suppression took place during the last federal election.

The challengers claim that live calls and robocalls purporting to be from Elections Canada directed non-Conservative voters to the wrong polls, and that a small but significant number of voters in their ridings didn't vote as a result — and they want the results in those ridings thrown out.

The seven Conservative MPs whose election victories are being challenged are asking that $260,000 be set aside by the applicants to help cover their legal fees.

The Canada Elections Act specifies that $1,000 is all a voter need put up in order to contest an election in court, however the Act does allow some leeway for that amount to be increased.

If the court grants the MPs' request, the deposit would ostensibly be borne by the Council of Canadians, whose lawyers are representing the seven voters.

Council of Canadians lawyer Steven Shrybman argued Tuesday that the voters challenging the results don't stand to gain anything, but are fighting for democracy in the public interest.

Shrybman told the court it would impede access to justice if voters are required to deposit large amounts of money in order to contest an election. The Canada Elections Act states that "any" voter can challenge the results of an election if there are grounds to do so.

He also argued that its clients are public-interest litigants and money raised for a defence fund for them comes from donors' pockets with no hope of a tax receipt, unlike the Conservative MPs, whose legal bills are being paid by the Conservative Party, which can issue generous tax receipts.

Shrybman said it would be an additional burden for his clients to not only have to pay their own legal fees but also be obliged to put up thousands of dollars in security deposits in advance of a court decision. He added that surely Parliament never intended to empower only wealthy voters when it passed the provisions to contest an election.

But Hamilton noted the voters in this case aren't paying their own fees; rather, he said, the COC has promised to cover all their costs.

Hamilton also argued the COC has produced only one witness in all seven ridings who says that he or she didn't vote because of a misleading phone call. The other voters in the case have all filed affidavits saying they received misleading or harassing calls but don't say they didn't vote as a result.

The Canada Elections Act specifies that fraudulent activity must be shown to have affected the results of an election if the results are to be thrown out.

The federal court reserved judgment until further notice.

The seven ridings where election results are being contested are: Don Valley East and Nipissing-Timiskaming in Ontario; Elmwood-Transcona and Winnipeg South Centre in Manitoba; Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar in Saskatchewan; Vancouver Island North in B.C.; and Yukon.

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