Former judges to lead consultations on planned new wrongful convictions commission

Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré and Harry LaForme

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals have appointed two former judges to lead consultations on the creation of an independent commission to review possible wrongful convictions.

Harry LaForme, former justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal, and Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, who sat on the Court of Quebec, will confer with interested parties on the structure and mandate of the new commission.

The move is another step toward fulfilling a commitment in Justice Minister David Lametti’s mandate letter to create a body that would make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their cases examined.

The Justice Department says the two former judges will consult provincial and territorial partners, criminal law professionals, victims of crime, Indigenous Peoples, Black Canadians and other racialized communities, and organizations that advocate for the wrongfully convicted.

Once consultations are complete, a report detailing the findings and recommendations will be submitted to Lametti.

“Wrongful convictions are a matter of deep concern to me, and to many Canadians,” Lametti said Wednesday. “These consultations will capture a wide array of perspectives and will help inform a comprehensive, made-in-Canada approach to this issue.”

Innocence Canada, a group that helps people who insist they have experienced a miscarriage of justice, praised the appointments and said they will ensure a sound set of recommendations for a review commission.

“As a renowned jurist with a broad knowledge of the law, Justice LaForme is an ideal choice,” said Innocence Canada co-president Kirk Makin. “Being Indigenous, he also brings keen insight into how the law is often prone to malfunction when it comes to defendants from marginalized groups.”

Makin said Westmoreland-Traoré is an equally inspired choice.

“The first Black judge in Quebec, her bilingual background and rich experience in academia and human rights are ideal credentials for the project she will now help lead.”

Advocates have long pushed for a properly resourced, independent review body, a concept endorsed by several inquiries into high-profile wrongful convictions over the years.

“While we are concerned by how long it is taking to get this project going, we look forward to the prospect of all parties co-operating to create this vital institution,” said Innocence Canada co-president Ron Dalton.

A few university projects and the modestly funded group led by Dalton and Makin are currently the last recourse for convicted individuals who maintain their innocence. 

An independent commission, like those in a handful of jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, would have resources and police-like powers to investigate, search and compel witness testimony, Innocence Canada said.

“It would afford a speedier route for defendants to obtain retrial or full exoneration.”