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Rejean Hinse looks out the window of his lawyer's office in Montreal, April 14, 2011.

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

The Supreme Court of Canada says the federal government owes no compensation to a man wrongly convicted in Quebec 51 years ago, ruling that Ottawa did not act in bad faith in denying to exercise "the power of mercy." A lower court had awarded the man nearly $6-million for the eight years he spent in jail for armed robbery between 1961 and 1969.

Réjean Hinse was found guilty in 1964 of participating in a violent armed robbery of a couple in the small Laurentians community of Mont-Laurier, and spent eight years in prison. He was 24 at the time of his conviction, had just a Grade 9 education, had been refused legal aid and tried on his own to appeal.

It would be more than three decades before the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously declared him not guilty, in 1997.

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His lawyers say Mr. Hinse, now in his mid-70s, spent his life in a "psychological prison" because of federal justice ministers' refusal to conduct a serious review, under a Criminal Code section providing for overturning guilty findings where a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred. The section is known as the power of mercy. (The first justice minister Mr. Hinse sent a letter to was Pierre Trudeau. Jean Chrétien was another one, and Kim Campbell a third – all would become prime ministers.)

Mr. Hinse protested his innocence from the outset, and Quebec's Police Ethics Commission, after investigating, agreed that police investigators and a court made major errors. After launching legal action, Mr. Hinse reached a settlement with the province of Quebec for $5.3-million, and the town of Mont-Laurier for $250,000.

Quebec's Superior Court, citing federal "inaction as implacable as it was inexplicable," ordered the Canadian government to pay Mr. Hinse $5.8-million, but Quebec's Court of Appeal overruled that order, saying that Mr. Hinse had not proven federal authorities failed to conduct a serious review of his case, or acted in bad faith.

His lawyer in the current case, Guy Pratte, said the Quebec appeal court's dismissal of Mr. Hinse's claim against Ottawa set the bar so high that the right to compensation for a lack of federal diligence becomes "purely hypothetical."

"There exists no documentary or testimonial evidence attesting to any review whatsoever of Hinse's file," as the Quebec Superior Court noted, Mr. Pratte said in a document filed with the Supreme Court.

The federal government replied that the government's discretionary power is similar to that of a prosecutor, and its decisions are entitled to protection from lawsuits, except where it acts in bad faith. It said there is no evidence it acted in bad faith in Mr. Hinse's case. It also said that, even if the court finds it acted in bad faith, the $5.8-million damages award ordered by the Quebec Superior Court was excessive, since the federal government was not directly involved in the conviction of Mr. Hinse.

The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, which intervened, said the case is about "compensation for a lack of decision making, a lack of review, and a lack of reasonable action. It is about the ability of a wrongly convicted person to sue the federal government for its negligence in handling ministerial reviews."

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