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William Code: Lawyer won victory for police disclosure

By on June 7, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments
In Edmonton in December, 1988, William Code leans on a stack of nearly 40,000 pages of testimony from 205 days of hearings collected as part of the Code Inquiry, which he conducted from from 1987 to 1989. (Ray Giguere For The Globe and Mail)

In Edmonton in December, 1988, William Code leans on a stack of nearly 40,000 pages of testimony from 205 days of hearings collected as part of the Code Inquiry, which he conducted from from 1987 to 1989.
(Ray Giguere For The Globe and Mail)

Over the course of his distinguished 50-year career, William Code’s greatest legal victory was a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that forced police and prosecutors to share all information with the defence, not just the evidence the Crown was going to use in court.

Mr. Code, who died in Calgary this month at the age of 83, was appealing a lower court’s finding against an Alberta lawyer, William Stinchcombe, who was convicted of fraud and breach of trust. The police had interviewed a witness (a former secretary), but didn’t disclose all the details of the interview to the defence. Mr. Code argued to the higher court that the police and Crown should reveal all.

The Supreme Court agreed: “The Crown has a legal duty to disclose all relevant information to the defence. The fruits of the investigation which are in its possession are not the property of the Crown for use in securing a conviction but the property of the public to be used to ensure that justice is done.”

Mr. Code’s 1991 appeal was upheld and a new trial ordered. The ruling was so important it is now referred to simply as Stinchcombe.

Mr. Code also made headlines before that, when he conducted the one-man Code Inquiry from 1987 to 1989, looking into the scandal involving Donald Cormie’s Alberta-based Principal Group and other companies controlled by Mr. Cormie. When the businesses went into receivership, 67,000 investors lost nearly $500-million. One of the big losers was a Hutterite group who lent money to the Principal Group. Over 205 days of hearings, Mr. Code heard from 157 witnesses who gave 38,267 pages of testimony.

Mr. Code boiled down all that evidence and issued a clear picture of how investors had been defrauded. The Principal Group was running a kind of Ponzi scheme, according to Mr. Code, in which they would pay off investors with money from new investors. “They would get it from Peter to pay Paul,” he said later. But his most damning comments were saved for the Alberta government, which he said knew about the fraud for at least four years.

“The [Alberta government] regulators’ unwillingness is apparent from their lack of action once they knew the companies were no longer viable,” he wrote in his 629-page report. Investors eventually received only about 30 cents on the dollar; Mr. Cormie paid a $500,000 fine and moved to Arizona.

William Everett Code was born on Nov. 20, 1932, in Gadsby, Alta. The village, east of Red Deer, is said to be the smallest in the province. His father, also William, was a travelling school principal, his mother, Lesley (née Cameron), was a teacher whom his father met and married in Gadsby. The Code family were early settlers in Alberta; his great-grandfather, another William Code, was Winnipeg’s first fire chief, and the family later moved west.

Though Mr. Code would become one of the province’s most prominent lawyers, the law school at the University of Alberta nearly turned down his application. On May 20, 1953, he received a letter from the acting dean of law, which said: “I have again examined your university record and am confirmed in the doubts which I rather frankly expressed on Friday. However, because of your anxiety to give law a trial, I am inclined to consider favourably your application.”

He graduated in 1956 and joined an established law firm. In 1971 he started his own practice, Code Hunter, with Alan Hunter. His son Brett (whose other name is also William) described it as “a thriving and successful law firm that has produced many of Alberta’s leading lawyers and judges.” It started as a full-service law office but Mr. Code and others eventually spun off a reorganized Code Hunter that specialized in litigation.

When prominent Albertans got into trouble, many of them sought out Mr. Code. He represented former Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington more than once. He also represented another troubled sports tycoon, Larry Ryckman, the one-time owner of the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

His success as a lawyer did not, however, lead to victory in his bids for political office. He ran in the 1989 Alberta election, which was the first ever held for a Senate seat; Mr. Code came second to Stan Waters, the Reform Party candidate, whom Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed to the Senate.

Bill Code, as he was known outside the legal world, was a Liberal in a province that voted Conservative, in both federal and provincial elections, for most of his life. “I was a Liberal in Louis St. Laurent’s time and when Lester Pearson was leader,” he told the Calgary Herald in 2011. In addition to the 1989 Senate election, he ran for the House of Commons in 1984, losing to a Conservative.

Mr. Code was appointed as a NAFTA panelist in 1993 by the Chrétien government. He became involved in the softwood lumber case. He spent a lot of time in Washington, arguing that Canada was not subsidizing softwood exports to the United States.

“It’s supposed to be free trade. No government interference. But you’ll get complaints by the softwood lumber people in the U.S.,” Mr. Code said in an interview with the Calgary Herald.

Racehorses were Mr. Code’s hobby and other business. He bought his first horse with a friend in 1967 but soon went out on his own. Like many racehorse owners, he kept his horses and bred them at his trainer’s stables. He raced all over Alberta, but for him the biggest races of the year were the Stampede Futurity Stakes in Calgary and the Birdcatcher Stakes in Edmonton.

“By 1989, the purse in the Birdcatcher was up to $50,000. In September of 1989, Dad won it with Leading Laddie, the same day his first grandchild, Jillian Bevan, was born. Five weeks later, Leading Laddie won the Stampede Futurity Stakes, with a purse of $75,000,” Brett Code said. “Winners usually got 62 per cent of the purse so in those two races dad won $31,000 and $46,500.”

Running a string of racehorses was an expensive business, but it was a hobby, said Revenue Canada, as the tax department was known then. Mr. Code hired a tax lawyer and they won the case, saving Mr. Code tens of thousands of dollars in tax. The winning argument was that he spent as much time with the horses as he did at his law practice: 30 to 40 hours a week each.

His other hobbies included bridge and golf. A big man, he could hit a ball 300 yards (275 metres), his friends said. When he retired from law several years ago he described himself as a “homemaker,” taking care of his wife until he had a stroke a couple of years ago.

Mr. Code died in Calgary on May 3. He leaves his wife of 57 years, Peggy (née Buck); his children, Brett, Kelly, Geoffrey and Bryce; seven grandchildren; and his brother, Fred Code. Continuing the family tradition, two of Mr. Code’s sons are lawyers.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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