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.

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