It’s hardly surprising that the federal Liberals, Greens and New Democrats came out firmly this week to support a proposal from Innocence Canada to create an independent commission to review wrongful convictions. What is surprising is the reluctance to date of the Conservative party to do the same.
Innocence Canada, the country’s principal advocacy group for the wrongly convicted, has lobbied government for decades to establish an independent commission to review claims of wrongful conviction. These advocates have cited the United Kingdom’s Criminal Convictions Review Commission (CCRC) — which assesses claims of wrongful conviction independent of the political arms of government — as a potential model for Canada to adopt. And for good reason.
Created in 1997, the CCRC has reopened more than 800 cases in the U.K., resulting in more than 600 quashed convictions. In Canada, over the same period of time, the federal government has referred just 27 cases for judicial review.
Although no system is perfect, the CCRC removes politics and institutional bias from the process, allowing for more just and objective conclusions. It’s certainly encouraging that in this election, three of Canada’s national parties have committed to creating a similar body.
But what of the Conservatives? Innocence Canada has only said that the Tories, along with the Bloc Québécois, have yet to respond. It may be that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will join the other parties in supporting an idea whose time has come. Then again, he may not.
When the Conservatives last held power in Ottawa, advocates for the wrongfully convicted reported that the federal government — which, through Sec. 696 of the Criminal Code, holds the sole power to reopen a criminal case to examine new evidence — became much more skeptical and less open to the idea of overturning convictions. This was a problem because most provinces hold the same general perspective, and work diligently to frustrate any effort to expose a wrongful conviction.
Politicians of all stripes often believe that doing more to help the wrongfully convicted will be viewed as also being soft on crime. There was a perception that the former federal Conservative government was reluctant to reopen cases because it was at odds with the politics of its core supporters.
Politicians of all stripes often believe that doing more to help the wrongfully convicted will be viewed as also being soft on crime. There was a perception that the former federal Conservative government was reluctant to reopen cases because it was at odds with the politics of its core supporters. The reluctance of Mr. Scheer to join the chorus in supporting the Innocence Canada proposal seems to move that perception closer to reality.
A strong and independent federal agency is needed on this issue. Provinces oversee the prosecution services that occasionally convict the wrong person; when someone raises the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, those prosecution services put more energy into defending the original conviction than considering the new evidence. In other words, they have too much skin in that game.
Ottawa, on the other hand, typically has no role in investigating or prosecuting the victims of wrongful conviction; as such, it should be free to conduct an objective review. Unfortunately, it can take years, if not decades, for cases to make their way from application to remedy. It’s time for a new approach.
The federal election is still too close to call, and a minority government is a distinct possibility. It is time for Canada to adopt the U.K. model and put these cases in the hands of an institution that is free of fear and favour, political or otherwise. If the Conservative party does not support that idea, it should certainly make its reasons known so voters can consider them on Oct. 21.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.