In Canada’s criminal justice system, people are sometimes found guilty of crimes that they did not commit. These errors are known as wrongful convictions.
The number of wrongful convictions in Canada is unknown. In part, this is because it is very difficult for wrongfully convicted people to establish their innocence.
Normally, legal errors can be corrected through judicial review or appeals to higher courts. After this process has finished, people who believe that they have been wrongfully convicted can apply to the federal Minister of Justice for a review of their conviction. The minister must assess all relevant considerations – such as new evidence in the case – to decide whether it is likely that a wrongful conviction occurred.
If the minister decides that a wrongful conviction likely occurred, the minister has several options, including referring the case to a court of appeal or ordering a new trial.
Wrongful convictions may affect some groups more than others. For example, women, youth and Indigenous people experience various forms of pressure to plead guilty. In addition, the criminal conviction review process can take several years, which can make it less useful to people who are serving shorter sentences.
Several public inquiries have investigated specific wrongful convictions. These investigations have highlighted some of the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, including racial bias, unreliable witnesses and tunnel vision. They have also produced recommendations to improve the justice system.
One consistent recommendation has been to consider creating an independent body to review wrongful convictions, modelled after the system used in the United Kingdom. Advocates argue that this would make the conviction review process more accessible and transparent. The federal government is studying this option.
Read the full text of the Background Paper: Wrongful Convictions in Canada
Author: Robert Mason, Library of Parliament