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What is a life sentence in Canada? A life sentence in Canada is 25 years in jail, to be served in a federal institution, and the remainder of the offender’s life will be spent on parole. A life sentence is also the maximum penalty under the Canadian Criminal Code. Once a Judge imposes a life sentence there may still be some options available for some offenders, such as an appeal of the conviction or an appeal of the sentence. In Canada, a life sentence is extremely rare and is usually reserved for murder. The criminal offences for which mandatory life sentences are required upon convictions are: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and high treason.

For an explanation on the required intent for murder please refer the article Overview of Murder Intentions in Canada.


Both first-degree murder and high treason have a sentence of life imprisonment with no parole eligibility for 25 years. This means that an offender must serve the full sentence before being able to even apply for parole. Further, parole will be for life. If serving concurrent or consequence sentences for other convictions or convictions for multiple murders, the parole ineligibility period may be extended further.

Second-degree murder charges also carry a mandatory life sentence. However, the period for parole ineligibility can range from 10 years to 25 years depending on the allegations and other related factors.

Those are the only offences that carry a mandatory life sentence. However, there are several other offences that are eligible for life imprisonment.

These are largely relegated to offences which are related to murder, such as conspiracy to commit murder. Or involve causing death, or the possibility of death, such as causing death by criminal negligence or endangering the safety of an aircraft.

These typically have shorter parole periods, ranging from 7 to 25 years. Although there is no guarantee of parole. In most cases, outside of terrorism-related activities, sentencing practices attempt to avoid giving life imprisonment.


An option available when receiving a life sentence is to pursue an appeal. An appeal is always made to a court higher than the court than imposed the conviction and sentence. The appeal process can only be initiated once the sentence is imposed. The underlying conviction can be appealed or just the sentence can be appealed. If appealing the mandatory life sentence it will need to be a constitutional appeal and this area of the law already seems well settled.

The Court of Appeal does not hear an appeal for every case. Nor does it re-hear the case or start a new trial. Instead, the burden is on defence counsel for the convicted offender to show that a factual,mistake of fact, or legal error, mistake of law, was made that impacted the outcome of the trial.

If all appeals are exhausted or are unavailable, you can apply for a Ministerial Review or a Faint Hope Clause.


The Faint Hope Clause is now only available to people were sentenced prior to December 2nd, 2011. The goal of the Faint Hope Clause is not to overturn a conviction. Instead, the purpose is to reduce the period of parole ineligibility.

To apply for this clause, you must have a period of ineligibility for over 15 years. The Faint Hope Clause is designed more for people who are already incarcerated than for someone who was recently sentenced.

The process reviews the records from the first 15 years of incarceration. As well as any updates to the forensic reports from the initial crime.

If successful, the clause can reduce the period of parole ineligibility. However, there is no guarantee parole will be granted.


Unlike the Faint Hope Clause, an application for Ministerial Review is an attempt to overturn the conviction. It is only available after exhausting all other appeal options. The application needs to show that the subject was convicted in an unfair trial.

A successful application requires new evidence that demonstrates a miscarriage of justice occurred. New DNA evidence is one of the more effective attempts at a Ministerial Review. However, even with DNA, success is rare in this process.

Even if the review is successful the conviction is not automatically overturned. Instead, the Minister will either order a new trial or refer it to the Court of Appeal.

This appeal requires a lot of preparation. There is a low success rate without significant investigation and review.


If you or a loved one are facing a potential life imprisonment Canada, you need a criminal lawyer. They understand what a life sentence in Canada means and the process and will provide you with a realistic view of your possible options and outcomes when dealing with a life prison in Canada.

William Jaksa is a Toronto criminal defence lawyer with over 15 years of experience in practicing criminal law. Contact Jaksa today for a consultation.

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