Criminal appeals process ‘impossible’ for many women prisoners

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Criminal appeals process ‘impossible’ for many women prisoners

Applications to the the Court of Appeal have dropped by more than a third in the last decade, according to research revealing the barriers faced by women prisoners when challenging convictions.

Almost nine out of ten women (86%) writing to the charity for legal advice were past the 28 day window to lodge an appeals. Outside of that window, then defendants have to apply to the miscarriage of justice watchdog the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer their case back to the Court of Appeal. Reasons cited for this include a lack of access to information, with over a third of women reported as not knowing how to lodge an appeal and a general lack of knowledge on the process. According to the report, applications to the court of appeal have dropped by 36% from 2011 to 2019.

The research was undertaken by Naima Sakande, women’s justice advocate at APPEAL, after her interest was piqued when she learned that out of a sample of 268 people who appealed against their sentence or conviction between 1997 and 2010, only 7% were women (just 19 cases). The report points out that fewer women enter the criminal justice system ‘making up roughly 26% of the total number of people being prosecuted’ and 27% of convictions. The research draws on questionnaires and letters to the charity from women in custody as well as a survey of legal professionals.

‘What use is an appeal system that people cannot access?…Women who have been unfairly sentenced or wrongfully convicted deserve access to justice,’ commented Sakande. ‘We cannot allow them to languish in prison with no hope of redress.’ Nicola Padfield QC, who supervised the research, claimed that it is an ‘impossibility’ to hit the 28 day deadline for appeals for many women.

‘What this research shows with heart-breaking clarity is the impossibility for so many women of processing an application for appeal in the first weeks of a custodial sentence. Looking at new sources, and using the words and experiences of imprisoned women, this research makes a clear case for changing the tight time limits imposed by the current law.’
Nicola Padfield QC, professor of criminal justice at the University of Cambridge

The report argues other factors are significantly more gendered. For example, women did not feel comfortable and secure revealing their relevant experiences such as domestic violence due to shame and the fear of being disbelieved. Trauma such as this can be deeply personal and raw, therefore coming to light after their conviction, before being revealed to their legal representatives.

More than a quarter of women interviewed (27 of 95) stated that they felt their pre-sentence report was incomplete or incorrect and that when it came to sentencing, their mitigating circumstances were not given appropriate weight by the judge, and as of 2019 nearly 70% of these are still male. Female issues are therefore suggested to be neglected at sentencing, for example, the detrimental effect of imprisonment on their children’s lives.

As well as this, the research from APPEAL shows that there has been a startling disparity in the standard of advice given by trial lawyers to clients, with one half of women complaining of ineffectiveness of legal advisors. Lawyers have claimed that cuts in legal aid funding and a general attitude of discouragement from the court have made it harder to win cases in the appeal court and is impacting women’s access to justice.