November 22 2023

MPs to look into the plight of the wrongly convicted

MPs to look into the plight of the wrongly convicted

Image from Proof issue 3: Why legal aid matters

MPs to look into the plight of the wrongly convicted

You really don’t have to look very hard to see major problems within the criminal justice system. In the last week, we have seen headlines about 10,000 cases which may be affected by data manipulation at a private laboratory. Recent reports from the inspectorates of both police and the Crown Prosecution Service have found considerable evidence of shortcomings and poor practice in disclosure, but with legal aid cut to the bone the defence community is not always able to adequately respond and challenge these poor practices.

Add into this picture the epidemic of fresh allegations of often decades-old claims of sexual abuse and the oft-criticised techniques deployed by those investigating them and there would appear to be a perfect storm of miscarriages of justice waiting to occur.

At the Centre for Criminal Appeals, the non-profit law practice and charity dedicated to investigating such cases, there is certainly no shortage of requests for our services; over 800 in the last three years.

And yet the current mood amongst those of us dedicated to challenging miscarriages of justice is markedly pessimistic. The Criminal Cases Review Commission’s much heralded historical referral rate of 3.3% disguises a miniscule 0.77% last year. Those lucky few who make it past this considerable hurdle find themselves before an increasingly reactionary Court of Appeal Criminal Division.

Professor Julie Price from the Cardiff Law School Innocence Project sums up these concerns and frustrations:

‘Obviously, we can never know for certain whether someone is actually innocent. But in 12 years, our project has presented to the CCRC serious evidential flaws relating to 17 people maintaining innocence, with success in only one. This cannot be right: statistically, morally, or in terms of simple fairness.  There is something fundamentally wrong – arguably the statutory relationship between the CCRC and the Court of Appeal. Is the CCRC, as the public guardian of miscarriages of justice, prepared to support the recommendations of the Justice Select Committee and press the government to properly review the relationship between the CCRC and the Court of Appeal and the approach of the latter? If not, why not?’

Her colleague Dr Dennis Eady recently told the audience at the CCRC’s 20th anniversary conference that he considers the situation to be worse than either in 1991 when the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was ordered, and 1997 when the CCRC began its work. When I later asked Dr Eady to expand upon this view he told me that he stood by the comment:

‘Due process safeguards have been drastically eroded and the CPS seems intent on achieving prosecutions at all costs and opposing every appeal regardless of its merits. The always low, referral rate of the CCRC is the lowest it’s ever been and the Court of Appeal seems to be becoming more and more intransigent and restrictive. It has become far too easy to wrongly convict and close to impossible to overturn genuine miscarriages of justice. Justice is in crisis and all responsible attempts to address the problem will end in disillusionment unless the government addresses the issues.’

It is in direct response to this perceived crisis in justice that Wednesday 29th November will see the launch of a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice. The new group is the brainchild of lawyer Glyn Maddocks, founding trustee of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, and Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield who has been a longstanding supporter of the campaign to clear the name of Maddocks’ client Tony Stock.

Preventing and overturning miscarriages of justice should be amongst the most fundamental duties of our criminal justice system but this duty is not currently being met. The aim of this group is to bring together a group of Parliamentarians committed to truth, justice and accountability. Mr Sheerman comments:

‘As parliamentarians, we have a duty to help the wrongfully convicted and address the structural problems within the criminal justice system which continue to result in miscarriages of justice.  Despite the creation of the CCRC 20 years ago, the number of cases referred to the Court of Appeal is pitifully small and wrongful convictions which are referred remain largely uncorrected. I hope that the APPG on miscarriages of justice will provide a forum from which we can work together to improve access to justice for those who have been convicted of crimes they did not convict and, ultimately, prevent wrongful convictions.’

The APPG has been welcomed by Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and also by many lawyers, campaigners and academics who work in this area. Professor Price has expressed her hopes that this will help bring about some much-needed change in this area.

‘I very much welcome this vital attempt to embrace a renewed informed political will to work with those of us who have direct and disheartening experience of this appalling situation. It’s time to call for change – on behalf of those innocent people in prison who will never be released without a new political push. I have invited Welsh MPs to take a key role in this new APPG and am delighted at the early positive response from those already agreeing to sign up to the new APPG.’

Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and Rob Brown, who spent 25 years in prisons for a crime he didn’t commit, will address MPs. Solicitor Matt Foot will also talk about Eddie Gilfoyle whose latest attempt to overturn his conviction failed last week – as reported on the Justice Gap here