#CCRC20: The Reputation of Innocence Projects
The airing of documentaries such as Making a Murderer has pushed the issue of miscarriages of justice into the public eye, but what does that mean for the reputation of innocence projects?
The original Innocence Project in New York, and other USA projects, are well known for working on potential miscarriage of justice cases, usually those on death row. However it is clear that the smaller, less well-resourced, University-led innocence projects in the UK are largely unknown in comparison. Unfortunately it seems that very few even know what an innocence project is. Those who do are either lawyers seeking a home for cases where there is no legal aid, or those who are facing the consequences of a wrongful conviction.
Cardiff University’s Innocence Project has gained a fair amount of publicity due to being the only UK University-led innocence project to overturn a conviction. The case of Dwaine George has attracted attention in the media with several articles about the case, and a forthcoming item on BBC1’s The One Show recognising the work that the project did to overturn Dwaine George’s murder conviction.
However, innocence projects have been criticised for what seems like a very low success rate – still just this one successful case. This lack of success is not because of students failing to put in sufficient work. Instead, the reason is the extreme difficulty of actually overturning a conviction. Those who contact innocence projects usually do so as a last resort. They have exhausted all their other options such as contacting lawyers and the CCRC and so they are looking at cases that no one else will take on. This makes their starting point incredibly difficult.
Another criticism of University-led innocence projects is the fact that the cases are worked on by students. In fact even the chair of the CCRC, Richard Foster, criticised the fact that students are working on cases stating: ‘If you think that you have a terminal illness, would you rather have your case considered by medical students in the bar on Friday night – or would you rather send it to a consultant oncologist?’
This comment offended many of us and highlights the perception that many people don’t believe students are ready or qualified to work on such cases. But, I would ask – if students don’t take on these cases, then who will? Students are generally extremely focused on their clients and fully understand the issues that accompany miscarriages of justice issues.
Finally, University-led innocence projects and their students have been accused of taking advantage of these cases in order to boost both the University’s reputation and the students’ CVs. I disagree that this is a motivation. Students are generally incredibly passionate when working on their cases and the wider issues. For example, at Cardiff University, there are many opportunities throughout University that allow law students to enhance their CV and employability, including multiple pro bono schemes.
However, to earn a place on the innocence project students must undertake an entire semester’s worth of training, which is far longer than any of the other schemes. This training includes completing a portfolio and a presentation on a topic involving a miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, once a student gains a place on the project they are usually expected to work on their case for a minimum of four hours a week in addition to their degree studies. This proves the dedication of the students who work on the Cardiff project.
Those of us who give our time to this area of work hope that these projects will become better known for the good work they do, and that the CCRC and Court of Appeal will embrace the concept of willing, able extra pairs of hands to work on the increasing problem of miscarriages of justice.
We welcome the increased public interest in real-life miscarriages of justice, helped along by Serial and Making a Murderer, and now followed by various UK media pieces. But our real hope is that the public will see the very real problems with our criminal appeals system and together we can start to make a difference to calls for reform of a system that clearly isn’t working.