It is more than 20 years since the Criminal Cases Review Commission was established and more than a quarter of a century since the Guilford 4 and the Birmingham 6 were released. Even more recent high profile cases such as those of Sally Clarke and Barry George were in 2003 and 2008 respectively.
These days you might be forgiven for thinking that miscarriages of justice were a thing of the past. You’d be wrong.
Each year around 12 people are released from prison having had their conviction overturned. Since the CCRC started work in 1997, nearly 400 people have had their belated innocence established. These are stories of the failure of the UK criminal justice system few people get to hear about. But for many victims the unfairness doesn’t end at the door of the court on the day of release, what follows can often be a series of further injustices.
The incredible truth is that victims of miscarriages of justice often receive less support than ex-offenders. The sole offer of help is provided by the Miscarriages of Justice Support Service from the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau (MJSS). But while the CAB acts as an advocate it has no control over delivering the services victims actually need.
Housing is an area where the injustice can be starkest. When convictions are quashed, the wrongly convicted person is often released without the careful preparation and aftercare afforded to other prisoners. If the victim requires social housing, the prospects are bleak. Many will fail local council homeless teams’ ‘local connection’ test, owing to their imprisonment. Some may be deemed to have caused their own homelessness (an odd notion as their imprisonment was due to a, now acknowledged, error on the part of the State) or reject the one offer they receive from the local authority because of particular issues relating to their circumstances and vulnerability.
As a result many miscarriage of justice victims are left in inappropriate housing, sharing with people who are not conducive to assimilation back into the community or experiencing frequent moves in the privately rented accommodation and persistently having to rebuild networks.
Take the case of Victor Nealon, which www.thejusticegap.com has covered in some detail. Nealon was convicted of rape in 1997 but when DNA evidence was finally examined 17 years later it pointed to another, unknown perpetrator. Nealon was discharged from Wakefield Prison with £46 in his pocket and nowhere to stay. The former postman was reported to have spent his first night of freedom on the streets of Birmingham and faced months of persistent housing uncertainty as he tried to rebuild his life. Changes to the law around compensation for victims such as Nealon (making them no longer eligible) is likely to increase the housing needs of victims.
After working on a project providing housing and support for such individuals, Commonweal Housing, a small housing charity that looks to tackle social injustices through innovative housing solutions, commissioned academics at the London School of Economics to look at what can be done to look at the housing options for victims of wrongful imprisonment in the UK.
The resulting report is available here . It outlines the steps needed to overcome the failures of the system. Primarily we call on central government to issue new guidance to local authorities so that we the vulnerability of victims of miscarriages of justice is formally recognised by local housing options teams.
But we also make the case for a wider cultural shift from a variety of stakeholders. Housing support and advocacy services also need to up their game to become more familiar with miscarriage of justice cases. We ask various support services to begin to produce training and guidance material to local advisors to ensure front line staff are as well equipped as possible to respond to victims’ needs.
The constant thread through our report is the lack of statutory services available to victims. Our final recommendation in the report is to establish a fund administered through the MJSS to provide small amounts of subsidy where it is needed to ensure successful re-housing and re-integration into the community. Commonweal is pledging £20,000 in matched funding to establish the fund.
Support for the recommendations of the report is strong with groups such as The Chartered Institute of Housing supporting us.
While the public spotlight may have turned to other matters for now, miscarriages of justice will continue, but the injustice after release needn’t. Our report marks a step on the road to ending the cycle of injustice for victims.
You can read Lucie Boase on the Commonweal report here