01/20/2013 10:39 EST | Updated 03/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Requests for Royal Prerogative of Mercy on the rise as Ottawa restricts pardons

OTTAWA - New restrictions on the granting of criminal record suspensions, or pardons, are causing more former convicts to seek clemency under the rarely used Royal Prerogative of Mercy, according to the Parole Board of Canada.

In fact, the federal agency has posted an "Important Notice" on its website to discourage clemency applications, which it notes are "only granted in exceptional circumstances."

"If you are ineligible for a record suspension, or the board has refused to order a record suspension in your case, it is highly unlikely that you will qualify under RPM," cautions the board.

There are currently 79 active clemency applications in the pipeline, according to Parole Board spokeswoman Caroline Douglas.

That's up from 58 in the system last March, when the board's 2011-12 annual report noted it more typically handles about 20 applications a year.

Changes to federal pardon rules enacted by the Conservative government have had a ripple effect through the system.

The reforms were prompted in 2010 when The Canadian Press reported that Graham James, a former junior hockey coach and repeat child sex offender, had been quietly granted a routine pardon in 2007.

James has since pleaded guilty to further sexual assaults from the same period of his coaching career.

An omnibus crime bill passed last spring put pardons out of reach for many former offenders, including prohibiting applications by those convicted of child-sex offences and by anyone with more than three convictions for indictable offences.

The new law also doubled the crime-free waiting period before an offender can apply to 10 years for indictable convictions and to five years for summary offences, which are less serious.

At the same time, Ottawa enacted new regulations that quadrupled the application fee for a pardon — now officially called a record suspension — to $631.

The Parole Board makes a direct link between the new restrictions in the pardon system and the flood of mercy pleas.

"Extending the ineligibility period for certain offences as a result of amendments to the (Criminal Records Act) will have direct implications for the Board's Clemency Unit," said the 2011-12 annual report.

In addition to the backlog of clemency files, it noted the unit was "dealing with an increase in enquiries as a result of the new legislation."

"This has led to delays in processing requests for clemency under the RPM."

The Royal Prerogative of Mercy also received a high-profile boost last August when Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the government's repeal of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly to announce clemency for grain farmers previously convicted of wilfully breaking the monopoly in protest.

"Let me be clear about this, these people were not criminals," Harper told a media event to mark the monopoly's end on a farm outside Kindersley, Sask.

"They were our fellow citizens who protested injustice by submitting themselves peacefully to the consequences of challenging that injustice. Those consequences are what was wrong."

While Harper did not name the individuals, or their number, the Parole Board says two individuals were granted clemency in 2012.

At the time of Harper's Aug. 1 announcement, farmer Jim Chatenay told Postmedia News that he was one of those granted mercy — and that he had not applied. Rather, the Prime Minister's Office approached him.

According to the Parole Board, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy is "a largely unfettered, discretionary power vested in the Governor General," who in turn is directed by the federal cabinet.

"The benefit of the program addresses instances of substantial injustice and instances of undue hardship," according to the Parole Board's annual report.

And it has been rarely used for more than a decade.

Prior to the two Wheat Board protesters granted clemency by Harper last August, there were two individuals in 2011, none in 2010, one in 2009, none in 2008, two in 2007 and one in 2006.

Between the year 2000 and 2005 under the previous Liberal government, just three clemencies were granted. However that followed a flurry of 15 in 1999 and 14 the year before that, according to statistics published by the Parole Board.