Although one would think that a sentence of life imprisonment imposed by a court in Alberta means exactly what it says—that the convicted individual will spend the rest of his or her life in an Alberta prison—this is not necessarily the case. Under some circumstances, a convicted individual is eligible for release from prison and not required to serve the entirety of the life sentence that the court imposed.
A skilled and knowledgeable legal team can plan a comprehensive strategy that might lead to an eventual release from prison, usually through a granting of parole. At Chadi & Company, an Edmonton criminal defence firm serving all of Alberta since 1991, we have extensive post-conviction experience. Our talented and trial-tested lawyers will determine if there are grounds for an appeal of your conviction and sentencing. If such grounds exist, we will devise a strategy that can hopefully lead to parole and your release from prison.
While the difficulty of obtaining parole should in no way be underestimated, it is achievable. The experience of Chadi & Company will be invaluable in this pursuit.
How Long is a Life Sentence in Canada?
Having outlawed the death penalty in 1976, a life sentence is a maximum penalty that a Canadian court can impose. The period when an individual sentenced to life imprisonment first becomes eligible for parole differs and depends upon the underlying criminal offence. If the individual is ultimately released from prison, he or she must spend the balance of their life on parole.
What Crimes are Eligible for a Life Sentence?
There are three crimes in Canada for which, following a conviction, a mandatory life sentence must be imposed. They are for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and high treason.
A distinguishing difference between the two murder categories lies in the convicted person’s eligibility for parole. An individual convicted of first-degree murder must serve a minimum of twenty-five years of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole. In contrast, a person convicted of second-degree murder will become eligible for parole a time after they have served between ten to twenty-five years of their sentence.
Life sentences can be imposed following convictions for other crimes. However, a conviction for these crimes does not result in an automatic life sentence. Instead, eligibility for parole can occur anywhere from 7 to 25 years after conviction. These other offences include:
- High treason
- Aircraft hijacking
- Endangering the safety of an airport or an aircraft
- Endangering the safety of a ship
- Refusing an order to disperse following the proclamation of a riot
- Breaking and entering with intent
- Attempted murder
- Being an accessory after the fact to a murder
- Conspiracy to commit a murder
- Causing the death of an individual by street racing
- Causing death by criminal negligence
- Killing an unborn child in the act of a birth
- Aggravated sexual assault.
While technically possible, life sentences are rarely imposed following convictions for any of these offences. Instead, and for particularly violent offences, including violent sexual assaults, individuals can be designated as dangerous offenders, receiving an indeterminate sentence of incarceration with no end date.
Although persons designated as dangerous offenders are eligible for parole after seven years, it is rarely granted at that time, as they are considered likely to commit other crimes upon release. While different from a life sentence in certain respects, the designation of an individual as a dangerous offender is similar in that the offender will often have to wait a very long time before having a realistic possibility of being paroled.
Finally, persons who are at least fourteen years old can be tried and sentenced as adults for first or second-degree murder. However, such individuals will have a shorter period of parole ineligibility, ranging from five to ten years following the time that the murder was committed.
Option #1 After a Life in Prison Sentence – Appealing a Life in Prison Sentence and/or Conviction
An individual who has received life in prison sentence has three potential options. The first and most common option is to file an appeal.
Following a conviction that results in a life imprisonment sentence, an individual can always appeal the sentence and/or conviction to a higher court. However, the appellate court has no obligation to hear the case. Instead, the convicted individual or his or her defence lawyer has the burden of convincing the appellate court that the trial court judge made either a factual or a legal error that had a material effect upon the adjudication of the trial, thus necessitating the overturning of the conviction and a new trial.
A person who has received a life sentence has a finite number of appeals and cannot proceed in this manner once the appeals have been exhausted.
Option #2 After a Life in Prison Sentence – Faint Hope Clause
A second and more difficult option that a convicted individual can pursue is to file a Faint Hope application. If an individual has received a sentence of life imprisonment that includes a period of parole ineligibility of over fifteen years and no longer has the legal right to file an appeal, he or she may be eligible to file a faint hope application. Such an application seeks to reduce the applicant’s period of parole ineligibility. It does not claim that a mistake of fact or law was made and does not seek a new trial.
Due to recent amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada, Faint Hope applications can only be filed on behalf of individuals who were convicted of and received life sentences for offences that occurred prior to December 2, 2011. Faint Hope applications are not available for convictions or sentences that occurred after that date.
Option #3 After a Life in Prison Sentence – Applying for Ministerial Review
A third and rare option that can be pursued following conviction and sentencing is for the applicant to file an Application for Ministerial Review with the Minister of Justice. Such an appeal can only be filed after the applicant has exhausted all appeal options. Such an application is similar to an appeal in that it seeks a new trial. However, the basis on which the new trial is sought is different than in an appeal. In an Application for Ministerial Review, the applicant argues that new evidence now exists that the applicant was unable to present at trial, the remedy for which is a new trial.
An Application for Ministerial Review is a special remedy that requires a tremendous amount of effort, time and planning. For these reasons, it generally has a low rate of success. Nonetheless, it remains a potential option if all appeals have been exhausted.
How Chadi & Company Can Keep Fighting For You
The imposition of life in prison sentence has profound implications for the convicted person and his or her family. It is a complicated area of the law that requires a law firm with successful post-conviction experience. At Chadi & Company, serving Edmonton and the entire province of Alberta, we can help. Contact us online for a free consultation or call (780) 429-2300.