Will the government overhaul the way wrongful convictions are reviewed?
'It's a justice issue, it's an issue that everyone should be concerned about' - lawyer James Lockyer
Advocates for the wrongfully convicted say they're hoping the federal government is ready to establish a new independent commission to review wrongful convictions in Canada.
The first item in Justice Minister David Lametti's mandate letter tasks him with establishing "an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their applications reviewed."
Ron Dalton is co-president of Innocence Canada, a non-profit that works with the wrongfully convicted. He said he had a meeting with the minister's staff on Wednesday.
"There's going to be consultation with the stakeholders as any legislation develops, and it'll take them a bit of time," said Dalton, who served eight-and-a-half years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"But it's much further than we've ever advanced in the past 35 years."
Dalton was arrested and charged with murdering his wife Brenda Dalton in 1988 and spent 12 years fighting to prove his innocence.
"I was arrested within 24 hours, convicted the following year, spent eight and a half years in maximum security prison," leaving his sister to raise his three small children, he said.
Dalton's conviction was overturned in a retrial in 2000 after forensic evidence showed his wife had accidentally choked to death on cereal.
"The year my wife died our daughter was six years old. She had just graduated kindergarten and when my retrial ended in June of 2000. I made her high school graduation by about two hours," he said.
"So that kind of sums up the the 12 intervening years."
What will the new independent commission look like?
On Jan. 28, Lametti told reporters "it's still too early to tell" what form the commission will take or how it will work.
"It's something I strongly believe in," he said.
In a media statement sent to CBC News, Lametti said the government "is committed to ensuring that effective mechanisms are in place to identify and respond to potential wrongful convictions and address miscarriages of justice."
"I will be working closely with stakeholders and other implicated actors to determine the path forward on this important commitment."
James Lockyer is a prominent wrongful convictions lawyer and the founding director of Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He said he's been fighting for something like the independent commission for nearly 30 years.
"To have it finally is great," Lockyer said.
Under the current system, a wrongfully convicted individual must convince the federal justice minister and the department's Criminal Conviction Review Group to refer the case back to the provincial court of appeal.
For Lockyer, that's a problem. He said he wants to see the power to review a claim of wrongful conviction taken out of the minister's hands entirely.
"Why would you have the minister of justice review a claim that the criminal justice system in Canada has got it wrong?" he said.
The Criminal Conviction Review Group doesn't take on cases proactively, Lockyer said. And it's up to the claimant to gather the evidence to prove a miscarriage of justice — a daunting task when you're behind bars. Lockyer said the average ministerial review of an alleged wrongful conviction takes around four and a half years.
That's where not-for-profit organizations like Innocence Canada come in — but their resources are limited.
"If we had the resources of the federal government behind us, the way an independent body that's publicly funded would have, hopefully these things would move along much quicker," Dalton said.
Lockyer suggested the government look to the U.K.'s process for wrongful convictions.
Canada, he said, has referred only 27 cases to ministerial review since 1991 — but since the U.K. established its own review body for wrongful conviction cases in 1997, it has referred 807 cases back to appeal courts.
Since 1989, numerous public inquiries and commissions have recommended Canada establish a publicly funded independent body to review and rectify cases of wrongful conviction.
'An issue that everyone should be concerned about'
The new commission was part of the Liberal Party platform in the last federal election. Lockyer and Dalton said they never got a firm answer from the Conservatives or the Bloc, but the commission concept is supported by the NDP and Green Party.
"I see no reason why we can't get everyone onside on this issue," Lockyer said. "It's a justice issue, it's an issue that everyone should be concerned about."
Lockyer said he's confident the government will move forward on the commission in its current mandate.
"We need to get it done," he said. "We need to strike when the iron is hot and so we're going to do everything we can to encourage this to go forward."
Written and produced by Olivia Chandler.