Defence eyes stay of proceedings in Manitoba doctor’s sex assault trial, claiming abuse of process

The sexual assault trial of a Manitoba doctor, which has stumbled through delays in its first week, had another on Friday after new evidence was obtained by both the Crown and defence.

“We’re not entirely where we expected to be,” Crown prosecutor Paul Girdlestone told Court of King’s Bench Justice Anne Turner on Friday afternoon in Winnipeg.

Both the Crown and the defence for Arcel Bissonnette said they needed additional time to review the new disclosure, which came from police investigators over the past three days. The lawyers requested an adjournment until Monday morning.

Bissonnette has been charged with a total of 22 counts of sexual assault against female patients over the course of 13 years, from 2004 to 2017, when he worked at the hospital and medical centre in the town of Ste. Anne, about 40 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

He was initially charged in 2020 with six counts. After those were announced more complainants came forward, and 16 more counts were added in October 2021.

The current trial is only dealing with the original six counts.

He has pleaded not guilty to all of them. 

A man in a parka with grey hair is shown above the waste, standing outside on a snowy day.
Arcel Bissonnette heads into the courthouse earlier this week. He has been charged with a total of 22 counts of sexual assault against female patients over the course of 13 years, from 2004 to 2017. His current trial is dealing with six of those charges. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Marty Minuk, one of Bissonnette’s lawyers, said the most significant piece of the latest disclosure came to the attention of the three-person defence team on Friday morning.

While it needs to be assessed, Minuk advised Turner that unless the new evidence somehow changes the defence team’s position, they intend to seek a judicial stay of the proceedings, which would put a halt to the trial altogether.

“We’re reviewing matters for the purpose of our application for a stay of proceedings,” Minuk told reporters outside court.

In court, he cited abuse of process, late and missing disclosure, and issues around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the grounds for a stay.

Bissonnette’s judge-only trial began Monday, but the proceedings were cut short that day, and again Tuesday and Wednesday. It reconvened on Friday afternoon for less than three minutes.

At issue have been missing correspondence, reports and notebooks from the Sainte-Anne Police Service, and specifically from former officer Jacqueline Lawford, the lead investigator on the case between August 2017 and April 2019.

Only fragments of disclosure from October 2018 until April 2019 exist, defence lawyer Lisa LaBossiere said on Monday.

The Crown has since provided the defence with a list of items the defence said it needed, except for Lawford’s notebooks.

Lawford, who testified briefly Monday but was not cross-examined, claimed she put those notebooks in a filing cabinet after she left Ste. Anne to take on a job at a different police service.

The notebooks, however, have not been located and Lawford said she has no idea what happened to them.

LaBossiere told court on Monday she had significant concerns over the integrity of the investigation and, without key evidence like the notebooks, Bissonnette’s ability to mount a proper defence.

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