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Fighting for Justice: the University of Essex Miscarriage of Justice Project

Richard Owen, Law Clinic Director, University of Essex

By Richard Owen, Law Clinic Director, University of Essex on

Fighting for Justice: the University of Essex Miscarriage of Justice Project
From October 2014, law and criminology students from the University of Essex will be taking part in a brand new Miscarriage of Justice project and are very excited to be working in partnership with Inside Justice.  The timing is opportune as the University is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and the vision of our founding Vice Chancellor, Sir Albert Sloman, is currently being celebrated.  He stressed that universities should be inter-disciplinary in their curriculum.  Working with Inside Justice advances his vision as it offers our students the opportunity to work with distinguished practitioners from a number of fields: investigative journalism; campaigning; forensic science, criminology and legal practice.  

Above all, working with Inside Justice will inspire our students.  It offers them the opportunity to see, at first hand, the values that should underpin the criminal justice system and the consequences which flow when the system fails to live up to its ideals.  Working on an actual case, they should be in no doubt about how difficult it can be to get a case reopened and how painstaking the groundwork has to be.  However, working with such experienced practitioners should imbue them with the optimism that with commitment to excellence and sheer hard work it is just about possible to rectify injustice.  We should aim to produce graduates who will be committed to striving to prevent miscarriages of justice for the entirety of their working lives.  The University’s Human Rights Centre alumni work in human rights leadership positions throughout the world so foregrounding the miscarriage of justice agenda should raise it in the consciousness of future policy makers throughout the globe.    

The University has worked with Inside Justice on an exciting induction programme for students, which promises to be a rewarding educational experience.  They will look at crime scene investigation and management; types of evidence; cognitive bias; and a case study which will give them an insight into the know-how required to kick start an investigation into a possible miscarriage of justice.  They will also be made aware of the past history of miscarriages of justice, why they occur, how they can be rectified, and how the system can be improved.  

This is clearly a rich educational experience but any partnership has to be of benefit to both sides and for the project to be sustainable it must work well for Inside Justice too.  The University of Essex’s Miscarriage of Justice project has the backing of a leading research-led university as shown by the fact that it has been awarded one of the University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund grants and has offers of support not only from staff across departments but also from the Law Clinic’s existing pro bono network.  Obviously we can bring a pool of enthusiastic and bright people to provide extra assistance to investigations and to undertake further detailed examination of cases.  This is time which is not constricted by the budgetary and time constraints of working to a legal aid contract or the time pressure under which a firm of solicitors or barristers’ chambers must labour in order to earn fees.  Extra resources must surely be an added bonus when Inside Justice say that 830 cases have been reported to them since 2010 as possible miscarriages of justice. Students will bring a host of fresh perspectives and new ideas, possibly in areas such as social media and its relationship to campaigning work.  

The project has been very much bottom up.  It has arisen as a result of the students’ interest and the Student Law Society has been closely involved in its development.  Such energy and enthusiasm are wonderful but not enough.  Energy is a precondition of success but there has to be direction too.  Students will work under the guidance of academic staff and the project is guided by a project management team so they will not be left to flounder.  The project will account for progress, amongst other things, through the production of annual reports which can be assessed through various fora, such as the Law School’s Advisory Board.         

We can be flexible in our approach, filling in where we can be of the greatest assistance.  So, if Inside Justice would prefer us to work on a whole case or an aspect of a case, we can do that.  If they need a scene of crime visit or help in tracing witnesses then we can help with that too.  If they need research undertaken in a particular area then we can assist there also. We are a multi-disciplinary institution with a proud history of breaking out of traditional silos and forging new links.  We can contact different specialisms within the University to ensure that a problem is viewed from the standpoint of different disciplines.  
Academia can often be a surprisingly small and sharing community so we are in regular contact with other academic institutions involved in similar projects and already assistance has been offered to us from an existing Inside Justice partner: the University of East Anglia.  So the project will benefit from the knowledge exchange that takes place in the normal course of academic life.  

The University of Essex’s Miscarriage of Justice project feels honoured to be working with Inside Justice.  We are very aware of the wealth of knowledge and experience which resides within their Advisory Board and look forward to soaking it up like a sponge.  In return, we would hope to assist by being able to bring that detailed assessment of aspects of cases which would otherwise struggle to get done as a result of the time constraints faced by eminent people in the field.