VANCOUVER — A lawyer says he never specifically advised a former Speaker of British Columbia’s legislature about the eligibility of then-clerk Craig James for a retirement allowance that is the subject of a criminal charge. 

Donald Farquhar told a B.C. Supreme Court trial for James on Wednesday that while he believed a group of legislative officers that included the clerk would be eligible for the benefit, he was careful not to specify exactly how much or whom. 

James has pleaded not guilty to breach of trust and fraud relating to his claim of the $258,000 benefit and other expense claims during his time as clerk.

Kate Ryan-Lloyd, the current clerk, has told the court that James claimed the benefit based on Farquhar’s legal advice to him and the Speaker. 

“I can tell you that Craig James’s and Kate’s names never once surfaced in my dealings with the Speaker,” Farquhar said in court. 

Ryan-Lloyd, who was James’s deputy, has previously testified she returned the money because she felt “uncomfortable” with it after learning James didn’t have a written legal analysis justifying their eligibility. 

The retirement benefit was introduced in 1984 for so-called table officers, including the clerk, who didn’t receive either a public service pension plan or executive benefit plan, the court has heard.

A 1987 memo said the benefit should be capped after the compensation packages changed, however, Farquhar testified it’s his opinion that benefits would still accrue beyond that date for most officers.  

James approached him in 2011 so that he could provide a legal opinion to then-Speaker Bill Barisoff regarding the allowance after another table officer who was dying of cancer threatened to sue if he didn’t receive payment. 

When Farquhar reviewed the benefit, he said he recommended the Speaker “shut it down,” due to a missing clause that would require a minimum period of service before taking effect, which opened the legislature to big payouts for short-term employees. 

James asked Farquhar to “do up some wording” that would discontinue the benefit, the Victoria lawyer told the court. 

At one point, James asked Farquhar in an email if he and his deputy would be eligible. Farquhar responded that all table officers would be, but he said he characterized his response as a “passing comment.”

“Those two matters, the matter of writing Craig that day and suggesting wording for the Speaker, were the only times that I had anything whatsoever to do with Craig vis-a-vis entitlement,” Farquhar said, referring to James. 

The bulk of their discussions over the benefit related to the officer threatening a lawsuit, he said. 

“We were having to put out a fire that was threatening to go to court.”

He gave his advice on the termination of the benefit program based on five documents provided by James. He didn’t prepare a written legal opinion, but he also said he commonly gives oral advice. 

“I’m not one of those who believes that in order to have a valid opinion you must have a three-ring binder with appendices and footnotes,” he said.

It never crossed his mind to give Barisoff oral advice on James or Ryan-Lloyd’s eligibility, he testified. 

The meeting where he gave his advice about the program’s termination took about 15 minutes in Barisoff’s office and James was there, he said.

“Speaker Barisoff was a bottom-line type of guy. In other words, where are we at and what are we going to do about it?” he said. 

“What I do remember about it, and I’m not saying this out of disrespect, I remember Barisoff looked at his watch and said, ‘Craig, how about a bit of lunch?’ And that’s how it ended. You know that sort of describes the whole atmosphere so to speak. In other words, OK, let the lawyer have his say and then let’s get out of here.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2022.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press