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News Roundup Week Ending 2 May 2014

Charlotte Rowles

By Charlotte Rowles on 01/05/14

News Roundup Week Ending 2 May 2014
1 May 2014

Andrew Gumbel in the Guardian says Amanda Knox might get the re-trial she deserves if anyone considers the facts. 

New judicial errors give the Italian high court an opening to overturn the latest conviction, and either dismiss the case, send it back, or order yet another trial in another court. Judge after judge has twisted the available evidence into extraordinary contortions of logic to assert, at different times, that Kercher – a British exchange student stabbed to death in her room in Perugia in 2007. 

Still, the latest judicial document in the ongoing battle, a 337-page justification of the most recent convictions made public on Tuesday, marks a new low. Not only has Alessandro Nencini, the presiding judge of the Florence appeals court, apparently resorted to the same tortured logic as his predecessors; he has also stated things as fact that are manifestly and provably wrong.

Gumbel points to concerns about the judge’s view of the evidence in the new conviction report. Judge Nencini claims that a partial shoeprint found at the murder scene comes from a size 37 women's shoe and must therefore belong to Amanda Knox. But this is not based on the available evidence. The pattern of concentric circles on the sole was later proven to come from a different pair of Nikes belonging to Guede.

Nencini grapples with the question of how Knox and Sollecito could have participated in the murder but left no more than a single trace of themselves at the scene. Extraordinarily, the judge argues that Knox and Sollecito must have wiped the place clean of their DNA (but left an abundance of Guede's) because no traces of Knox's DNA were found anywhere in the apartment that she shared with the victim. But multiple samples of Knox's DNA were found and presented at trial; they just weren't found in the room where the murder took place.

Later Nencini writes that the blade of the purported murder weapon – a large kitchen knife found in Sollecito's apartment – bore traces of both Kercher's and Sollecito's DNA. Again, this is at variance with the evidence. The most the prosecution ever asserted was that Kercher's DNA was on the tip of the blade. Sollecito's DNA has never been found.

Much has been written about Italian justice's desire to save face in this much written-about case. To admit a miscarriage of justice, the argument runs, has become too difficult, because it would expose the mistakes of too many people, from the primary investigators to the Rome forensic lab to the prosecutors and judges. However, as the case trudges toward the seven-year mark, one has to wonder how much appetite the institutions of justice still have to stand by what they have done. Will the high court really want to endorse Nencini's report with all these evident flaws? Or will this finally be the moment when the justice system calls a halt to a travesty committed in its name and exonerates Knox and Sollecito, as it should have done years ago?

1 May 2014

Claire Carter in The Telegraph writes about the impact of cuts in legal aid. 

A £5 million fraud case has collapsed after David Cameron's brother successfully argued that legal aid cuts brought in by his sibling's government has led to a lack of competent defence barristers. 

Judge Anthony Leonard told Southwark Crown Court there was no prospect of a fair trial in the case and that the defence had made “very substantial but unsuccessful” efforts to find barristers to represent the defendants, through a series of "painstaking" enquiries. Alex Cameron QC, the Prime Minister’s brother, represented five of the defendants free of charge, and argued the trial could not go ahead because of a lack of competent barristers for his clients on legal aid. He previously said the case was part of a wider problem where there was only a finite pool of Queen's counsel barristers and very high demand for their services, with many independent barristers refusing to work under current legal aid rates which have been reduced by as much as 30 per cent. He had accused the state of knowing but doing nothing about the problem and previously said: "Something has to give."

It had been feared the defendants would have to resort to defending themselves - but prosecutors agreed this would have been a breach of their human rights.

The Ministry of Justice said in a statement: "Barristers have refused to work on this case - and a number of other very high-cost court cases - because they do not agree with savings the government is making to legal aid. The government has made sure that the Public Defender Service has a number of suitably qualified advocates who could act in this case."

I May 2014

Owen Boycott, the Guardian’s legal affairs correspondent, continues the reporting on the impact being seen in courts of legal aids cuts. 

Dozens of neurologists have declined to give advice about defendant's fitness to stand trial after legal aid fees are cut by £18 an hour.  The case suggests growing resistance among professional witnesses to reduced legal aid rates. 

A criminal prosecution is in danger of collapse because dozens of medical experts have declined to give advice about a defendant's fitness to stand trial following deep cuts in their fees. The case, which cannot be identified, suggests growing resistance among professional witnesses to reduced legal aid rates, a stance that could undermine the criminal justice process.

Neurologists were, until December last year, being paid about £90 an hour but their fees have now been reduced to £72 an hour with no travelling expenses. Even though in this case they are being offered the older, higher fee, a total of 27 neurologists have declined to take on the legal aid work, according to lawyers representing the defendant.

Medical consultants, who can charge more than £200 an hour for private work,suffered fee reductions through economies brought in by the Criminal Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) Regulations 2013. The regulations list two sets of fees for expert witnesses – in London and outside the capital. London fee rates are in most cases far lower on the grounds that more experts are available and can therefore compete with one another.

The Legal Aid Agency, which controls expert witnesses' fees, does not accept that the case should be halted and has implied that more money might be made available. It initially said that it had not "been contacted about any difficulties obtaining a medical expert in this case". The CPS says it does pay expert witnesses' travel expenses and can agree higher fees for highly qualified experts.

Complaints about cuts in experts' fees surfaced during consultations over the regulations.

Dr Chris Pamplin, editor of the UK register of expert witness, said: "The Ministry of Justice has had room-fulls of people warning them that this would happen [when the consultations took place].

David Cohen, of the Academy of Experts, which supports and trains professionals on how to give evidence in court, said he was aware many experts were declining to work for reduced legal aid fees.
"They slashed the rates by 10% a few years ago," he told The Guardian. "Now they have cut it by another 20%. If you want to have a criminal justice system it costs money.

Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said: "This is another sign of the damaging impact of the MoJ knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Expert witnesses, with highly specialised medical knowledge, are crucial in many complex cases.

"They can make all the difference between a secure conviction and an unsafe one. If their goodwill is lost and they increasingly refuse to work at the much reduced legal aid rates, defendants are at risk of unsafe convictions, cases will collapse without guilt or innocence being proven and victims and their families will be denied the justice they deserve."