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Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has announced provincial funding for Innocence Canada.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the first-ever commitment of government funds to Canada's leading defender of the wrongfully convicted, the government of Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada have committed a total of $900,000 over three years to Innocence Canada – at a time when the organization was facing financial catastrophe.

In September, Innocence Canada, which takes on the cases of people wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, was turned down for $250,000 a year in federal government funding. The Department of Justice said it cannot provide funding that supports the core operations of the organization.

As the last major gift to Innocence Canada – $1-million from Ontario Superior Court judge emeritus Ian Cartwright in 2009 – ran dry, the organization declared a funding emergency for 2017. It stopped taking new cases, curtailed education programs and gave layoff notices to staff.

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"We did that because we were in financial crisis, and like any responsible employer, we had to take steps to change our structure," Innocence Canada co-president Russell Silverstein said. "But now, the pressure's off, so we can go back to where we were several months ago and chart a new course for the future."

On Tuesday, Mr. Silverstein joined Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi and Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Paul Schabas to announce three-year commitments of $275,000 a year from the Ontario government and $25,000 a year from the Law Society.

Mr. Naqvi faced tough questions during the event – particularly on whether it makes sense to allocate provincial dollars to an organization that questions the government-funded legal system.

"We do have the strongest criminal-justice system in the world, but I don't think any criminal-justice system out there could say that they're perfect," Mr. Naqvi said. "It's a system that's built on humans, and mistakes are made. … I don't think I'm shooting myself in the foot."

Since its inception in 1993, Innocence Canada, previously known as AIDWYC – the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted – has pursued 21 successful cases, including those of Romeo Phillion, Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard, all wrongfully convicted of murder.

Innocence Canada has an annual budget of $500,000 to $600,000 a year. It needs to pay for such things as expert witnesses and independent labs to review forensic evidence. Each case takes about eight to nine years.

"There's a tremendous amount of work required," Mr. Silverstein said. "After a conviction is placed, there's so much inertia associated with that conviction. We need to find fresh evidence that demonstrates that an injustice has occurred."

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The Law Foundation of Ontario contributed about $230,000 annually for a decade. The foundation says it plans to sustain its commitment and to contribute further funds for the 2017 legal education program.

Innocence Canada will resume accepting new cases in January. It currently has more than 85 cases.

The organization's three-year plan includes an assessment of current processes and efficiency within the organization. As well, a large number of private donors have contributed to Innocence Canada since the financial crisis came to light in the fall.

"We [will strive to] get more financial support from the private sector, from individual donors," Mr. Silverstein said, "so that we don't become dependent on government money forever."

Mr. Naqvi could not say if the province will continue its financial commitment beyond three years, saying instead the province intends to work with Innocence Canada to help it become more financially sustainable in the long term.

Some countries, such as Britain, commission an independent body examine possible wrongful convictions. Innocence Canada has advocated for a similar system here.

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While Mr. Naqvi noted governments will discuss the possibility of establishing such a system, and what it would look like, "that's obviously within the sphere of the federal government."

"In our system, at least from my perspective, that work has been getting done through organizations like Innocence Canada," he said. "That's why we felt strongly that an organization like this should not close its doors."

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