October 29, 2009

Wrongfully Convicted of a Criminal Code or Drug Offence?

Many people are unaware that the federal Minister of Justice in Canada has the power, under sections 696.1 to 696.6 of the Criminal Code, to review convictions under federal legislation or regulations (including the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act) to determine whether there is new evidence indicating that a person might have been wrongfully convicted.

A ministerial review is not like going to the court of appeal; the Minister will not second-guess the court's decision or substitute his or her opinion of the evidence or the arguments already considered by the court. Also, a person must first exhaust any available appeals or judicial reviews of their conviction before applying for a ministerial review.

The Minister also does not decide if a convicted person is guilty or innocent. That role is assigned to the courts. However, the Minister will intervene in exceptional cases where a person presents new and significant information that casts doubt on the correctness of the person's conviction. In these cases, the Minister will refer the case back to the court to reconsider the conviction in light of the new evidence or information.

The applications for ministerial review are sorted, reviewed and investigated by an arms-length body which makes recommendations to the Minister about the merits of the applications.

The Department of Justice publishes a booklet explaining the process for applying for a ministerial review as well as what is considered "new and significant information".

Applying for a ministerial review does not require a lawyer, and can be done by filling out an application form, available online here. If you need assistance in filling out the form or advice about how to gather the evidence to support your application, you might want to consider making an appointment with a volunteer lawyer at a legal assistance clinic. A list of free legal services is provided on the right-hand side of this website.

October 22, 2009

The Pro Bono Map of BC: Like a Google Map for Free Legal Services

Yesterday I stumbled upon a great tool for low-income litigants trying to figure out where to get free legal advice and representation. The Pro Bono Map of BC allows you to search for the kind of help you need (legal representation, advice, referrals) in the area of law you need it (employment, small claims, immigration, etc.) where you happen to live (locations all over the province). The search results provide you with the name, contact information and map location of the clinics that can help you with your problem in your area.

The integration of these search criteria lets a user cut through confusion about which pro bono organization can help with a particular problem and helps people access legal services as close as possible to where they live (an important factor for low-income clients who may not have ready access to transportation).

October 15, 2009

Merger of Pro Bono BC + Access Justice = Good News for Low-Income British Columbians

There are three organizations providing the bulk of free legal services for low-income British Columbians who do not qualify for legal aid; Pro Bono BC, Western Canada Society to Access Justice and the Salvation Army Pro Bono Program.

Fuelled by volunteer lawyers, these organizations operate a variety of programs and clinics to meet the ever-increasing demand for access to legal services in British Columbia. However, as someone who has volunteered for all three, I can tell you that while each organization is effective and well-run, there is a significant amount of overlap between the mandates of the three bodies. This leads to duplication of services in some areas and a complete vacuum in other areas.

Also, because of the limited sources of funding for the organizations, there has been inevitable competition for financing from government, foundations, law firms and individuals.

Finally, both the legal community and low-income clients are often confused about the differences between the three bodies, and do not know how to properly refer or get referred to the organization that can best serve the needs of the client.

For all of these reasons, it is very good news that Pro Bono BC and Access Justice have announced a merger, to become effective in December of this year. This move will allow the new, stronger organization to more efficiently use funding and volunteers to expend the scope and level of service it provides.

The executive directors of Pro Bono BC and Access Justice, Jamie Maclaren and Allan Parker, should be congratulated for their vision and hard work in making this merger a reality.