02/06/2013 09:54 EST | Updated 04/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia justice minister refers Nicole Ryan case to RCMP watchdog

HALIFAX - The independent watchdog that handles complaints against the RCMP will review how the Mounties in Nova Scotia handled a woman's calls for help before she tried to hire a hit man to kill her allegedly abusive husband.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said Wednesday he called for the review from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP because the public has raised questions about how Nicole Ryan's case was handled.

"What's at issue for me is the perception in the public, and if there's a feeling of doubt or questions then we want to put that to rest," Landry said, adding that his office received three complaints from the public.

"I don't want to minimize the (problem of) violence against women in our society. ... We know that there have been far too many people abused that do not come forward. We need them to feel safe and that they will be fully supported."

Policing expert Paul McKenna said Landry — a former RCMP officer — made a prudent decision to ask for the commission's help, but he said the agency has faced criticism over the years for failing to take a more aggressive approach to its investigations.

While the commission is an independent body, many of its investigators are former police officers, said McKenna, a lecturer with the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

As well, McKenna said the commission has been hobbled by legislation that constrains it from digging deeply into police files and databases.

"There's a bit of risk involved with this," he said in an interview.

"What we need in these oversight bodies is more true civilians, people who aren't former cops."

Ryan, a teacher from western Nova Scotia, was arrested in 2008 when she tried to hire an undercover Mountie to kill Michael Ryan, who she accused in court of threatening to kill her and her daughter.

Nicole Ryan was acquitted of counselling to commit murder in 2010. The trial judge said the woman was under duress and not receiving help from police. That ruling was later upheld by Nova Scotia's appeal court.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the duress defence was improperly applied at trial, but eight of the nine justices ordered a stay of proceedings, saying it would be unfair to subject the accused to a new trial.

The high court also said the RCMP did not adequately respond to Nicole Ryan's numerous calls for help. But the Mounties have denied that.

Last Friday, the commander of the RCMP in Nova Scotia said an internal review concluded officers had acted appropriately when responding to Nicole Ryan's complaints.

Assistant commissioner Alphonse MacNeil said there are 25 instances when the names of either Nicole Ryan or Michael Ryan appear in police files. But he said there was only one time — in November 2007 — when Nicole Ryan complained about being threatened.

Michael Ryan was later accused of threatening to burn down Nicole Ryan's home near Clare, N.S. He was charged with uttering threats, but the charge was later dropped by the Crown.

MacNeil said many of the calls to police dealt with civil matters, including the couple's ongoing disputes over property ownership. He said that whenever Nicole Ryan called for help, the RCMP responded, even though there were times when there was little officers could do.

Michael Ryan said he wasn't surprised by the findings of the RCMP's internal review, and he welcomed the review by the complaints commission.

"I'm 100 per cent confident that the commission is going to reiterate what the RCMP have already disclosed to the public: there's nothing there to indicate that Nicole Ryan complained about domestic violence," he said Wednesday.

"There was no evidence that I ever abused her."

Michael Ryan has said he was never given the opportunity to refute his wife's claims in court.

"All the evidence was just her testimony."

Nicole Ryan's lawyer has said he has no doubt she was telling the truth and that the trial judge made a finding on evidence. The Crown says Michael Ryan was not called to testify because it was felt his evidence wasn't necessary to refute Nicole Ryan's duress defence.