A major thrust to cut delays and move cases of potential innocence forward more rapidly is heralding changes from top to bottom of the organization.
The changes include an all-encompassing review of our entire case backlog, modifications to how cases are handled and transformations in the roles of some IC staff members.
“After a good deal of discussion and some soul-searching scrutiny of our operations, the Board of Directors is determined to focus as vigorously as possible on our central mission – detecting innocent people and getting them out of prison,” said Ron Dalton, Co-President of Innocence Canada and an exoneree who spent ten years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.
Due to the finite resources available to address a very large caseload; a limited number of expert senior lawyers available to complete the applications; and the need to prioritize the number of cases we can realistically address in any given year, backlogs have grown and legal action has lagged. “We have to focus our efforts more carefully, recruit new talent and set realistic expectations,” says Executive Director Debbie Oakley.
She said that pro bono case reviewers are being asked to ensure a minimum of delay and a high quality of legal research and preparation. As much as possible, reviewers will remain with promising cases as their case moves forward, ensuring continuity and recognizing their dedication. Special emphasis will be put on expeditiously completing the final stage of an application – the writing of legal factums that lay out arguments and evidence.
“There may be particular occasions where the specialized Brief drafting work will even be modestly remunerated,” Oakley says. “The pro bono model is a vital part of our history and continued existence. However, we have had to recognize that there are times, given the extensive hours involved to finalize the Brief, when this resource must be augmented if we are going to achieve our central mission of freeing the innocent as quickly as possible.”
The comprehensive case audit will result this fall in a new approach to prioritizing cases and maximizing resources where applicants remain in prison and where strong grounds exist on which to anchor a S. 696 application to the federal Criminal Convictions Review Group (CCRG).
If successful, an application triggers an appellate court review or a re-trial. In some cases, a referral by the CCRG for review can prompt the Crown to concede an acquittal.
Jerome Kennedy, a member of the Board’s Executive Committee and former Minister of Justice for Newfoundland and Labrador, spearheaded the case audit. Jerome looked closely into all available documentation and evidence in each case and developed a list of high priority cases that can be addressed by available resources. His report was reviewed by the Innocence Canada Board at its September meeting and the recommendations were approved unanimously.
“The way Jerome has dug into this mammoth task is nothing less than inspiring,” said IC Co-President Kirk Makin, former justice beat reporter at the Globe and Mail. “Out of this, we are going to have a strong sense of every single case’s potential and circumstances. These are exciting times. The funding crisis in the fall of 2016 and subsequent support offered by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General and the Law Society of Upper Canada when the organization was in dire danger of closing its doors has invigorated us to move at full speed to focus on our core mission. Bottlenecks are unacceptable when lives and liberty hang in the offing.”
Work has been underway in recent months to realign staff responsibilities and resources to reflect our renewed mission. All staff positions have been assessed with a view to focusing our resources. Fulltime positions have been converted to part time where possible, and resources spent on administration have been reduced.
Client Services Director Win Wahrer’s responsibilities will continue to focus primarily on support for exonerees and clients who remain incarcerated. A portion of a federal grant recently approved will be marked for helping former and current clients. This will provide valuable support in funding Win’s work as well as expanding client services so that, for example, the Executive, Board members and lawyers working on cases will now be able to visit clients in prison to convey support pending reviews or retrials.
Notwithstanding the considerable effort that has gone into our refocusing, the Executive Committee opted to forge onward with planning for the 2017 Wrongful Conviction Day on Oct 2, 2017. This year’s Toronto event promises to reach a new high-water mark.
“It is important to raise consciousness about our cause, thank our donors and celebrate past exonerees and triumphs at this worthy event,” Ron said. “Costs have been covered each year by sponsorships and the generosity of the Law Society, so the day is an all-around winning proposition.”
The organization is simultaneously moving ambitiously into other areas. Prominent defence counsel Phil Campbell recently submitted on behalf of Innocence Canada a superb Brief for the Federal Department of Justice highlighting in detail a series of Criminal Code reforms that would greatly aid the dual causes of reducing wrongful convictions and enabling miscarriages of justice to be detected and corrected.
The paper follows on the heels of a highly successful round-table hosted by IC last winter which brought together lawyers and academics specializing in wrongful convictions, officials from two levels of government and Legal Aid Ontario.
In addition, our highly successful rebranding as Innocence Canada has won international recognition for marketing gurus KBS, who redesigned our image pro bono. KBS is now working with us to revamp our website so it will be more informative, attractive and effective.
Stay tuned as more information becomes available on the website about the implementation of these exciting changes, including details about the new case review priority setting and case review processes.