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Three parties back setting up wrongful-conviction tribunal; Tories silent

TORONTO — Three of the four major parties support setting up a British-style independent tribunal to review wrongful convictions, an advocacy group said on Wednesday.
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TORONTO — Three of the four major parties support setting up a British-style independent tribunal to review wrongful convictions, an advocacy group said on Wednesday.

Only the Conservatives have yet to commit to such a panel, said to be far more effective than Canada's current system of ministerial review, Innocence Canada said.

Once court appeals are exhausted, even if pivotal new evidence comes to light, the only option for someone convicted of a crime is to apply to the minister of justice to intervene personally on the grounds there has been a miscarriage of justice. If the minister agrees, he or she can send the case back for a fresh trial or ask the relevant court of appeal to decide what to do.

Flanked by two innocent men who spent years behind bars, lawyer James Lockyer said the current system for helping the wrongfully convicted is antiquated and badly broken.

"They have to petition the minister of justice for help, which is rather like the hen having to go to the fox," Lockyer said. "This is not in our view a partisan issue; it's an issue of human rights."

The Liberals under Justin Trudeau have made establishing an independent criminal-case review commission part of their election platform under the rubric of access to justice. The pledge says a commission would make it "easier and faster for potentially wrongly convicted people to have their applications reviewed."

Innocence Canada said the New Democrats under Jagmeet Singh agreed on Monday to support such a tribunal, while Elizabeth May of the Greens promised her party's support on Tuesday. The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have yet to respond.

David Milgaard, 67, who spent more than 22 years in prison for murder before DNA evidence proved he was innocent, pleaded for a tribunal.

"This can happen to you," Milgaard said. "(But) history has shown repeatedly that the current system in Canada is incapable of expeditiously reversing wrongful convictions in a manner that is fair, timely and just for innocent people in prison."

Also important, he said, is that real criminals are free to commit further crimes while innocent people languish in prison trying to prove their innocence.

Independent tribunals review and investigate cases with a view to determining whether a convicted person is actually innocent. Over the years, six public inquiries in Canada have recommended setting one up, to no effect.

Such a panel would include retired judges and prosecutors, lawyers, former police officers, and civilians. They would have significant powers of investigation, including the ability to call in a police force to re-investigate.

England and Scotland established such tribunals in 1997 to replace a system that still exists in Canada. Since then, Canada's minister of justice has referred 27 cases to the courts for a decision, Lockyer said. In contrast, the system in Britain — with a population roughly double that of Canada — has made 807 such referrals. Of those, the courts quashed more than 600 convictions, 148 of them for murder.

Key problems with Canada's approach are the length of time it takes and that the justice minister is essentially in a conflict of interest, Lockyer said.

"He or she views a wrongful conviction as an embarrassment to the justice system," Lockyer said, "Of course, the minister's personality and the minister's politics — especially law-and-order ministers — will play a tremendous role in the likelihood of an application being successful."

Innocence Canada, formerly the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, said a tribunal system would cost less than $2 million more than is now spent on such cases.

Ron Dalton, who spent almost nine years imprisoned for a murder that was later shown to be an accidental death, said eight likely wrongful murder convictions are currently on the justice minister's desk, with dozens more in the pipeline. He called the support of three main parties an encouraging step forward.

This story by the Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 9, 2019

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press