When a jailed Barrie man who felt that his rights were violated during a police strip search asked the Ontario Court of Appeal to review his case, he was considered self-represented, but he did have help.
The Ontario Pro Bono Inmate Appeal Program, which is designed to provide access to justice for inmates refused assistance from other sources, helped him navigate his way through the system and connected him with a lawyer for free to help make his case.
“We now have about 40 experienced appellate lawyers who volunteer their time in assisting self-represented appellants,” said Paul Jones, a paralegal who co-ordinates the program which reaches out to inmates in provincial prisons — including the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene — who have launched appeals. “Those 40 members work on a roster basis.”
Ronald Byfield, 29, was handed a two-year sentence for trafficking in cocaine in Barrie last year. But he believed his rights were violated when an officer doing a pat down search reached into his pants and retrieved a 184-gram bag of cocaine.
As co-ordinator, Jones was able to walk Byfield through the process, doing the case management and laying the foundation for a lawyer to make the legal argument.
“I help them any way I can, providing access to justice. And that’s the main reason for our program,” said Jones.
The program was launched in 1999, recognizing that many inmates were floundering in their attempts to appeal their convictions or sentences.
For a brief period, it received funding from Legal Aid Ontario, but that was lost to curbacks. In 2014, the Law Foundation of Ontario stepped in, providing the annual funding.
When an inmate files a notice of appeal, they can also apply to Legal Aid to fund their appeal.
But the road doesn’t end there for those who are refused.
Jones will pick up the ball after that to ensure a jailed appellant has some help. And when a date is set, one of the program’s volunteer lawyers then comes onboard.
The lawyers on the roster must be practising for at least five years and meet specific criteria.
“When the appeals are listed to be argued, that’s when a self-represented appellant is connected with a duty counsel, after they’ve made their initial review of the file, which is usually the month the appeal is being argued,” said Jones.
The lawyer will make the legal argument, but Jones said the inmate making the appeal also has a chance to speak to the court.
Typically, the program’s lawyers will argue 10 to 12 cases before the appellate court every month. The pandemic has forced some dramatic changes in how the appeals are currently conducted, but, since April, 45 inmates have received help.
Byfield was ultimately unsuccessful in his appeal. But Jones said the program’s success isn’t measured on wins and losses in the court, but rather through those it is able to assist through the process and provide some access to justice.