In Canada, a life imprisonment sentence is by far the most severe punishment for certain serious crimes. Although many indictable offences are legislated with the maximum penalty of life imprisonment, this sentence is rarely imposed by the courts, and is almost exclusively for serious and/or violent offences.
Offences such as first-degree murder, treason, and aggravated sexual assault can lead to a life imprisonment sentence. While the sentence signifies incarceration for the remainder of an offender’s life, processes such as the “faint hope clause” and ministerial review provide opportunities for parole eligibility and potential release. Moreover, the appeals process can also allow for a thorough and comprehensive review of the case.
First-degree murder and treason carry the longest period of parole ineligibility, as a person convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to life imprisonment pursuant to section 745(a) of the criminal code of Canada, is ineligible for parole for a period of 25 years after the date they were taken into custody. Both first and second-degree murder results in a minimum of life imprisonment in Canada, however, second-degree murder has an opportunity for parole after a period of 10 years of incarceration, whereas first-degree murder does not.
What is a Life Imprisonment Sentence?
A life imprisonment sentence refers to a term of imprisonment that in Canada, lasts for the offender’s life, a period of 25 years, with exceptions for parole eligibility and/or statutory release.
Under paragraph 745(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC), an offender serving life for first-degree murder is eligible for full parole 25 years after the date they were taken into custody. Eligibility does not mean automatic release.
Offences That Carry a Life Imprisonment Sentence:
Life imprisonment can be imposed for offences such as first-degree murder, high treason, or certain forms of aggravated sexual assault. These offences are considered the most serious under Canadian law and carry significant penalties. However, there are other offences that are legislated to carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. For example, the straight indictable offence of break and enter to a residence contrary to Section 348 of the Criminal Code of Canada carries a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment, meaning the courts could impose such a sentence. However, life sentences are almost exclusively for cases of serious violent offences.
In 2014, the Criminal Code of Canada was amended in order to grant courts the authority to issue consecutive life sentences, in effect allowing for multiple periods of parole ineligibility to be stacked and lead to a total parole ineligibility period of greater than 56 years. In the most extreme cases, it authorized a de facto term of life imprisonment without parole (when the total parole ineligibility period extends beyond the offender’s life expectancy).
While life sentences are rare in cases that do not include the violent offence of murder, the courts may apply a dangerous offender designation in cases involving serious violent or sexual offences. Such a designation may result in an indeterminate sentence with no maximum limit, but a parole review occurs after 7 years and every 2 years after that.
Appealing a Life Imprisonment Sentence:
When a person is sentenced to life imprisonment, they have the right to appeal the conviction or sentence. Appeals can be made under various circumstances, which include errors by the prosecution, errors or oversight by the judge, procedural irregularities, or new evidence. The appeals process provides an opportunity to challenge the conviction or seek a reduction in the sentence.
“Faint Hope Clause” Applications:
Section 745 of the Criminal Code is known as the “faint hope clause.” The section originally applied to offenders sentenced to life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 15 years or more; as well as offenders convicted of high treason or first-degree murder who were not eligible for parole for 25 years; and offenders convicted of second-degree murder, whose parole eligibility is set between 10 and 25 years.
Under the original faint hope clause, an offender who served 15 years of a life sentence could apply to the chief justice of the province where he or she was convicted for a reduction of his or her parole eligibility period. The chief justice then designated a superior court judge to impanel a 12-member jury to hear and determine the application.
The faint hope clause is no longer available for any offences committed after December 2, 2011, after the federal government passed legislation (Bill S-6) which abolished the faint hope clause for any person sentenced after December 2, 2011.
Under the “faint hope clause” of the Criminal Code, individuals serving a life imprisonment sentence may be eligible to apply for parole after serving 15 years in custody. The process involves demonstrating exceptional circumstances and convincing a jury that there is a “faint hope” of parole. Successful applicants can have their parole eligibility reduced to as low as 15 years.
It is important that an application under the “faint hope clause” is made by a qualified lawyer. For more information, book a consultation with Strategic Criminal Defence today.
Applications for Ministerial Review:
In certain cases, individuals serving life imprisonment sentences may apply for a review of their case by the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. This process is available for individuals who do not qualify for parole under the faint hope clause or for those seeking additional avenues for review and potential release.
The Minister of Justice has the lawful authority to review a criminal conviction under federal law to determine whether there may have been a miscarriage of justice. This authority is granted in sections 696.1 – 696.6 of the Criminal Code of Canada.
In short, the review process begins when a person submits an “application for ministerial review (miscarriages of justice),” also known as a conviction review application. The application for ministerial review must be supported by new matters of significance. This usually consists of important new information or evidence that was not previously considered by the courts. If the Minister is satisfied that those matters provide a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred, the Minister may grant the convicted person a remedy and return the case to the courts. This is done either by referring the case to a court of appeal to be heard as a new appeal or directing that a new trial be held.
It is important that an application for a ministerial review is made by a qualified lawyer. For more information, book a consultation with Strategic Criminal Defence today.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is 25 years to life?
A “25 years to life” sentence is a term used to indicate the minimum period of incarceration before an individual becomes eligible for parole consideration. It means that after serving a minimum of 25 years, the offender may be considered for release on parole.
How long is a life sentence?
A life sentence in Canada means imprisonment for a period of 25 years. However, parole eligibility and potential release may be determined through various legal mechanisms, including the faint hope clause and ministerial review. As described above, a first degree murder convictions results in a minimum of 25 years imprisonment before parole eligibility, whereas second-degree murder, although also a life sentence, provides parole eligibility after 10 years served.
Can you receive parole for a life imprisonment sentence?
Yes, individuals sentenced to life imprisonment can be considered for parole after serving a specified period of incarceration, subject to meeting the criteria and assessment by the Parole Board of Canada. Parole eligibility is normally after ⅓ of the sentence has been served.
Can a minor receive a life sentence?
In Canada, the legislation prohibits the imposition of a life imprisonment sentence for offences committed by individuals under the age of 18. Instead, alternative sentencing options are available for minors in the criminal justice system.
Notably, in some unique circumstances, minors between the ages of 14 and 18 can be tried in adult court under the Criminal Code of Canada for especially heinous violent crimes.
This was evidenced when an offender, who was 17 at the time of the offence, was later convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a Calgary Police Officer in 2021. While the offender did not receive a life sentence in this circumstance, it should be noted that minors can be tried as adults in such circumstances.
What is the difference between parole and statutory release in Canada?
Parole and statutory release are types of conditional release but are separated by two major differences: Parole eligibility is 1/3 of a jail sentence, while the statutory release is available at 2/3 of a jail sentence. Parole must be applied for, and granted, while statutory release is presumed.
Statutory release means that, in most cases, offenders sentenced to a federal correctional centre are automatically released from custody to serve the last third of their sentence in the community. Ultimately, they are released whether or not you have received or requested parole.
If you have questions pertaining to sentencing, life imprisonment, the faint hope clause, and parole eligibility, contact Strategic Criminal Defence today for a free consultation.