St. John’s-born lawyer scored prison rights victory

Bibhas Vaze credits mock trial, high school teacher at PWC with piqued his interest in law

Barb Sweet
Published on April 4, 2014

A St. John’s native’s win of a Supreme Court of Canada case is being heralded as a major victory for prison rights.

The Supreme Court of Canada said the nearly 1,000-year-old tradition of habeas corpus — the right to go before a judge to argue against illegal detention — means that prisoners deserve a prompt and thorough court hearing, the Globe and Mail reported this week, citing a law and civil liberties expert who recognized the decision’s importance for federal prisoners.

The lead lawyer in the case was Bibhas Vaze, who left Newfoundland to attend university and pursue a law degree.

It was Vaze’s education at Prince of Wales Collegiate that set him on his path, he said Friday, referring to his experience with a high school mock trial.

The Vancouver-based lawyer represented Gurkirpal Singh Khela, who was convicted of first-degree murder for hiring two men to carry out the 2002 killing of a schoolteacher.

According to the Globe and Mail story, in 2009, when Khela was transferred to Mission Institution, a medium-security prison, from the maximum-security Kent Institution, prison authorities received information from three anonymous sources that he had hired two men to stab another prisoner in retaliation for an assault when he was at Kent, and paid them with three grams of heroin.

In February 2010, he contacted Vaze after an emergency transfer to a maximum security prison. That transfer was challenged in court, on the basis that not enough information was disclosed to him to fight the allegations made against him.

The federal government preferred to have the complaints dealt with in federal court, which can take years.

But the Supreme Court of Canada upheld prisoners’ rights to a speedy process in rebutting a transfer, allowing prisoners to take their challenges to provincial superior courts, which happen within six days.

“If you go from a medium security institution to a maximum security institution or a minimum to a medium, the reason I think this is so important is there can be a significant difference in terms of your life if you get moved from one gradation to another. I mean, there are people who get killed,” Vaze said in a telephone interview.

“If the institution is going to make the case you need to be transferred, that’s almost equivalent to ‘Am I guilty or not guilty?’ You could suffer the same jeopardy in that way. If this is going to happen to you, you should have the right to petition the court very quickly on habeas corpus to review the decision and basically say it was done unfairly or on the basis of no evidence.

“(The decision is) going to be very, very helpful in insuring the institutions do what the law requires them to do. I’ve been dealing with the Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board of Canada for so long that I get frustrated because these are all administrative tribunals. What I have been seeing is a lot of stacking of these tribunals by the federal government with former law enforcement people and all of that.”

Vaze, who has been practising law for about 13 years, is quick to credit Newfoundland for its part in shaping his interest in helping others.

“The people there never showed any dislike of outsiders,” said Vaze, whose parents practised medicine in St. John’s for decades — former Janeway pediatrician Damodar and former St. Clare’s pathologist Pratibha, who retired and relocated to Toronto to be near Vaze’s sister.

He also credits the tight-knit East Indian community in St. John’s and the Hindu temple he attended with instilling in him values and lessons from his heritage.

Vaze’s grandfather was a lawyer in India, but he also traces his interest in the law to Prince of Wales, where history teacher Beniah Hicks had a big effect on him through the mock trials.

“He was one of the most well-read and widest thinking people in my life,” Vaze said.

In the mock trial, Vaze represented a woman accused of murdering her husband, though she claimed self-defence.

Vaze lost when the mock event was staged in Supreme Court before Justice Margaret Cameron, but he said he valued the experience with Cameron and the lawyer who helped the students — David Eaton. The loss also motivated him, he said.

After high school, Vaze attended the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia law school and Columbia University in New York for his master’s degree.