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Criminal appeals in an age of austerity

Charlotte Rowles, investigative journalist

By Charlotte Rowles, investigative journalist on 03/12/15

Criminal appeals in an age of austerity

At the recent conference hosted by the Criminal Appeals Lawyers Association (CALA), the brief was broad: to shine a light on the work of charities and universities, as well as providing a platform for solicitors and barristers to share their ideas and frustrations.

The audience first heard from Steven Bird, the founder of Birds Solicitors. In keeping with the conference theme of austerity, the veteran solicitor spoke about arrangements for consolidating criminal legal work which could mean a reduction of companies from 1,600 to around 500. 

“Those who are wrongly convicted need solicitors to fight their case. We don’t want justice to become a casualty. There are going to be lots of miscarriages of justice if you don’t fund the [criminal justice] system.”

The audience heard the latest from the coalface, via the Chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Richard Foster. In a talk that covered everything from referral rates to exceptional circumstances, there were a few key points for the future of criminal appeals work.

The CCRC is facing 30% budget cuts in real terms and at the same time dealing with a record increase in applications.

Anne Owers [Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission] has suggested that the CCRC could move from a Commission to an Ombudsman style model.

In the afternoon, we heard from a panel whose brief was ‘Alternative Approaches to Overturning Miscarriages of Justice’. The speakers were from a University Innocence Project, a lawyer-led appeal organisation [CCA] and Inside Justice.

Sophie Walker from CCA [Centre for Criminal Appeals] spoke about how miscarriage cases are the poster children for all that is going wrong in the criminal justice system.

“These cases challenge any assumption that the CPS has the all the resources it needs,” she said.

Dennis Eady, dedicated consultant at Cardiff University, spoke about the approach they take to cases at their Innocence Project.

“Our student teams of about six follow a police procedural approach: actions – reports – further actions”. Reflecting on his time at Cardiff, the campaigner told the audience: “I think we have a good customer service record”. 

A letter from one of their cases shone a light on the difficulties and desperation faced by prisoners they are trying to help: “You lot are my last glimmer of hope. I beg you not to give up on me”. 

The hard work of Cardiff students was rewarded with a major success in the case of Dwaine George when the Appeal Court quashed his conviction for murder last year. 

Louise Shorter, founder of Inside Justice, spoke about a recent collaboration with the University of East Anglia Innocence Project: “it involved sex offences: three siblings’ complaints”. 

With a three-fold increase in applicants and limited possibilities for fresh evidence, this type of case represents some of the most difficult to challenge. All the more satisfying to report that the CCRC have accepted the case for a full review. 

Louise Shorter the gave the conference a brief introduction to her organisation, explaining that there was a vacuum left when the BBC axed its long-running investigative programme, Rough Justice, in 2007, it having been the last dedicated media outlet to focus solely on miscarriage of justice cases.

“Inside Justice has an Advisory Panel of experts: a dozen or so people from forensic scientists to TV execs, who come together to sift cases. As a unit, we do the legwork and, for deserving cases, we then convince experts to help us”.

Louise spoke about the Unit’s success in maintaining a public spotlight on miscarriage of justice cases, notably the case of Colin Norris, a nurse serving a 30-year sentence, who became the focus of a BBC Panorama programme earlier this year. Colin’s case is currently with the Criminal Cases Review Commission

Having heard about the work of the three organisations, it was the audience’s turn to speak. 

One student working at Lancaster University’s Innocence Project explained the problems they faced in making progress on cases:

“We’ve struggled to get outside help, it can be difficult to move forward,” adding how, with older cases, momentum can all too easily be lost.

Delegates heard that Inside Justice plans to develop an online resource where experts can reply to questions students have about the current case. “We are trying to set something up, a forum to access [professional] expertise,” said Louise.

Michael Birnbaum QC, the celebrated barrister, passed on his advice to those new to the world of criminal appeals: “It’s invaluable at an early stage to speak to the original lawyers,” adding, without it, students on innocence projects would be working without essential information. 

Altogether a thought-provoking and helpful day for all.