Independent British tribunal may influence Canada's wrongful convictions
by Breg Bonnell
21 September 2005
TORONTO (CP)--The federal justice minister is entertaining changes in how wrongful conviction cases are handled, drawing inspiration from an independent British tribunal that has won the admiration of Canadian lawyers.
"I think our model is working well and at the same time, maybe we can take some things from them and apply it here," Irwin Cotler said while attending a conference in Toronto.
"I've looked into the British system from A to Z, and it's a good system and it works well. It's something we can certainly explore."
The minister's comments follow a string of high-profile murder cases being sent back to the courts while others remain under government review as possible miscarriages of justice.
In just under two years, Cotler has referred three cases of alleged wrongful conviction to the court of appeal and quashed the convictions of three others and ordered new trials.
The Association for Defence of the Wrongly Convicted says that represents a small number of wrongly convicted cases in Canada.
On Wednesday, they reiterated their call for an independent tribunal as the latest developments unfolded in Canada's saga of the wrongfully convicted--an ongoing tale that encompasses the likes of David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.
On Wednesday, Bill Mullins-Johnson was granted bail after 12 years behind bars for the murder and rape of his four-year-old niece while Cotler decides whether there was a miscarriage of justice in his case.
Association lawyer James Lockyer, whose organization is the only one in Canada taking on such cases, was buoyed by Cotler's comments.
Still, he pressed the minister to follow through and create an independent tribunal like the one that serves England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"We know there are far more cases out there," said Lockyer.
A similar plague of wrongful conviction cases in England led to the creation of its independent body in 1997.
"Public confidence in the criminal justice system was shaken," said Boris Worrall of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
"We don't represent the defence, we don't represent the judiciary, the police, even the applicant," Worrall said in an interview from the commission's headquarters in Birmingham, England.
"The fact that the commission is entirely independent of the rest of the system enables people to have more confidence in the criminal justice system."
Investigators, mainly lawyers and former police officers, have the power to obtain any documents held by public institutions--including secret services--that are material to the case in question.
Their final report is forwarded to a commissioner who decides if the case should be ordered back to appeal court.
Only one in 25 cases brought to the attention of the tribunal is deemed a miscarriage of justice and sent to court. But of those, 70 per cent result in quashed convictions for the wrongly convicted.
The commission has helped overturn some 50 murder convictions since its inception. Among the high profile cases it sent to the courts this year was that of Donna Anthony, a woman convicted of killing her two children.
"She's one of a number of mothers whose convictions have been quashed after evidence about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was called into question," said Worrall.
Scotland and Norway have adopted similar independent bodies to deal with wrongful convictions, and Worrall says numerous other nations visit commission headquarters regularly to observe their methods.
© CNEWS 2005