Three federal parties support setting up wrongful-conviction tribunal, Innocence Canada says

Three major federal parties support setting up an independent tribunal to review wrongful convictions, said an advocacy group Wednesday. The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have not yet commented on the panel.

The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have yet to respond

David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, spoke at Wednesday's news conference with Innocence Canada. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

Three major federal parties support setting up an independent tribunal to review wrongful convictions, said an advocacy group Wednesday.

The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have yet to commit to the panel, which is said to be more effective than Canada's current system of ministerial review, said Innocence Canada in the news conference.

The current system, which requires a person to convince the federal justice minister that they've been wrongfully convicted, would be replaced with a tribunal, Innocence Canada said.

This kind of tribunal has been recommended in at least five public inquiries since 1989.

James Lockyer, a lawyer for two men who spent years behind bars for something they didn't do, said in the news conference that the current system for helping the wrongfully convicted is "badly broken".

With the current system, Lockyer said, "they have to petition the minister of justice for help, which is rather like the hen having to go to the fox." He called it "an issue of human rights."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has made it a part of his election platform to make it "easier and faster for potentially wrongly convicted people to have their applications reviewed," said the advocacy group.

Innocence Canada said New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh agreed on Monday to support the tribunal, while Elizabeth May promised the Green party's support on Tuesday.

David Milgaard, 67, who spent over 22 years behind bars for murder before DNA evidence proved he was innocent, pleaded for a tribunal.

In the news conference, Milgaard said, "this can happen to you ... 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."

Milgaard added that real criminals continue to be free to commit further crimes while innocent people sit in prison, trying to prove their innocence. 

Independent tribunals review cases to determine whether a convicted person is actually innocent. Over the years, six public inquiries in Canada have recommended setting up the tribunal with no effect, said Innocence Canada.

'An encouraging step forward'

The advocacy group said that the panel would include "retired judges and prosecutors, lawyers, former police officers and civilians." They would have what the group calls "significant powers" of investigation, including the ability to call for a police force to re-investigate.

Ron Dalton, who spent almost nine years in prison for a murder that was later showed to be an accidental death, also attended Wednesday's news conference.

"Eight likely wrongful murder convictions are currently on the justice minister's desk, with dozens more in the pipeline," he said.

Dalton said that having the support of the three main parties is "an encouraging step forward."

Ron Dalton was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and spent eight years behind bars. (CBC News )

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 added. "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."

A tribunal system would cost less than $2 million more than is spent on such cases now, said Innocence Canada.