Category Archives: United Kingdom

New Scholarship Spotlight: Criminologizing Wrongful Convictions

Professor Michael Naughten has posted the above-titled article on The British Journal of Criminology.  Download here.  The abstract states:

This article considers the apparent lack of serious engagement with issues pertaining to wrongful convictions by criminology at present. It seeks to address this by criminologizing wrongful convictions in two senses: firstly, by highlighting a variety of forms of intentional law or rule breaking by police officers and prosecutors in the causation of wrongful convictions that in other circumstances would likely be treated as crime and dealt with as such; and, secondly, to reveal the extent to which such powerful criminal justice system agents can cause profound and wide-ranging forms of harm to victims of wrongful convictions, their families and society as a whole with almost total impunity. In so doing, the relevance of the study of the intentional forms of crime and deviance committed by criminal justice system agents in the manufacture of wrongful convictions to both arms of the criminological divide is emphasized: mainstream and critical criminology. The overall aim is to show that the study of wrongful convictions can further extend and enrich existing criminological epistemology in vital and important ways and can even contribute to the prevention and possible elimination of those that are caused deliberately.

 

What’s Next for Innocence Work in the UK?

From thejusticegap.com:  By Hannah Quirk

The End of Innocence, and The Chance of a New Beginning

The sudden demise of the Innocence Network UK (INUK) has caused consternation amongst those working with students on miscarriage of justice cases  – but it also offers a chance for anew beginning in clinical legal education in this country. Following my work at the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and an American innocence project, I argued in 2006, that criminal justice policy transfers between these two countries are not straightforward. Now seems a good opportunity to revisit some of those concerns.

Many of the problems with the work of INUK stem from the fact that it was just assumed that innocence projects were a good idea in this country. Innocence Projects in the USA are a commendable – if wholly inadequate – response to the appalling numbers who are wrongly convicted, with no hope of post-conviction legal assistance. These projects investigate and litigate cases that can also help campaign for criminal justice reforms. The situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is very different (Scotland has its own body).

In this country, a range of measures governing the collection and use of evidence has reduced the most egregious errors – the television series Life on Mars was founded on the audience recognising how policing had changed since the 1970s. Unlike in the USA, very few cases turn on DNA analysis which means that most appeals are on the basis of unsafety – we can never know with certainty whether the individuals were factually innocent or not. The nature of the caseload in this country is different; there far more are domestic sex abuse cases which bring unique investigatory challenges. Most significantly, we have a state funded body that investigates miscarriages of justice and refers cases back to the appeal court where appropriate.

Rather than continuing trying to shoehorn the work being done into the Innocence Network’s (trademarked) template, we have an opportunity to reflect on the experience gained over the last decade and consider the best way to proceed. Now is the time to think about what these projects are trying to achieve and what kind of assistance they can offer those claiming to be wrongly convicted. This needs to take into account the different types of cases in this country, the different level of legal education (undergraduate here rather than post-graduate in America) and how to work with the CCRC which remains the only mechanism for getting a conviction quashed. The most important consideration is, of course, how appellants are treated but there are also questions about students that require attention.

Assuming the university-led work is to continue, at what the CCRC chairman has said is a challenging time for his organisation, the following points are important:

  • Should ‘innocence’ be in the name? It is a compelling title but – as the projects have discovered – vanishingly few cases are of demonstrable innocence. The legal test that students need to apply is ‘unsafety’ – boring, bureaucratic but infinitely more protective of both suspects and the integrity of the criminal justice system. We should be teaching students – some of whom will become defence lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, journalists or politicians – why that test is so important. Students at the University of Northumbria who worked on Alex Allen’s successful referral and compensation claim, work from the Student Law Office for example.
  • What work should the students undertake? As Michael Naughton explained in his statement about INUK’s future, the realities of the undergraduate curriculum mean that it is difficult for students to dedicate sufficient time to a case. Any case that is not concluded in the academic year, has to wait to be reallocated, new students have to familiarise themselves with the case – and more time is lost for the applicant. This is unsatisfactory for students who do not see a case to completion, and dispiriting for applicants and their loved ones. In cases where there is a potential referral, this can mean a person spending years longer in prison than if they had gone directly to the CCRC. It might be more profitable for all concerned, if students focused on writing applications to the CCRC for applicants and monitoring the case progression, (as I understand students at the University of Leeds Innocence Project do). Research has indicated that CCRC applicants with legal assistance have a greater success rate). Those projects that want students to undertake investigations could focus on cases that have already been rejected by the CCRC so there is nothing to lose by any delay caused.
  • What should students not do? Emily Bolton, who founded the Innocence Project New Orleans(IPNO) and is now establishing the Centre for Criminal Appeals said in an interview the answers are not going to be in the office or on the phone but found by knocking on doors and revisiting crime scenes. If I’m missing a fact, I get my car keys and get out and find someone who can give me the answers.’ This encapsulates exactly why the US experience cannot be imported here – such actions could fatally compromise an appeal if the Court of Appeal considers it has been tainted. There are also risks to students engaging in such work – whether in contacting potential witnesses, sex offenders who enjoy rehearsing the details of their cases, or through the distressing nature of some of what they read. Kevin McMahon, founder of Merseyside Against Injustice, was convicted of perverting the course of justice for seeking a retraction statement from a prosecution witness before an appeal hearing.

In 2005, I left the CCRC and spent six months working at IPNO. I planned to conduct a piece of research comparing how miscarriages of justice are dealt with in the UK and the USA. Within a week, I realised that my project would have to change – the two systems were worlds apart.

I had left a well-funded, stable institution with statutory investigative powers, for an office that was scrabbling for funding, run by a handful of overworked staff supported by interns, was literally being eaten by termites, faced huge resistance from the police and prosecutors and was shortly to have to cope with Hurricane Katrina.

I was filled with admiration for the work of innocence projects but returned home with a renewed appreciation of the – obviously imperfect – system in this country. I found it baffling that the American model was being looked to for inspiration when what we had here was so much better.

None of this is intended as a criticism of those who have worked very hard to establish these projects over the last decade, but good intentions can still have unfortunate consequences. These cases are amongst the most difficult in the criminal justice system – despite all the problems with the National Health Service, most of us would be uncomfortable at the idea of medical students attempting brain surgery. Whilst the Americans may love Sherlock, importing the Scooby Doo model here (‘… and I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!’) is not necessarily the answer.

To misquote George Bernard Shaw, when it comes to wrongful convictions, America and England are separated by much more than a common language. This country has led the world in its response to wrongful convictions. Maybe the furore over INUK marks the time to set out on charting our own distinctive course in clinical legal education.

 

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Is ‘Innocence’ work over in the UK?

For some time, the news emanating from the UK has been getting worse with regard to the potential for miscarriages of justice, with law reforms diminishing legal protections for suspects and the almost total withdrawal of legal aid for the vast majority (nevermind the current moral panic of historic child sexual abuse which is swelling the prison population). This also comes at a time when changes to the rules on who can receive compensation for miscarriages of justice have also been ‘tightened’ to the point where barely anyone will qualify. I have blogged about many of the bad news stories coming out of the UK – including forensic science mishaps and police corruption seemingly continuing unabated regardless of new regulators or complaints bodies.Justice statue

Despite what one could view as the growing IMPORTANCE therefore of ‘innocence’ work in the UK, it looks as if things may be heading in the opposite direction. Following years of expansion with Innocence Projects being set up in universities across the country, it appears that these are now being encouraged to close. There are a host of reasons why Innocence Projects in the UK may be under threat (not least their position within univerisities whose priorites narrow ever further every day toward simply profit-making and rising up league tables.) They do not operate as a mirror to those in the US and internationally, largely because of the existence of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. However, their work is still invaluable. When I was Director of the University of Leeds Innocence Project, we received hundreds of letters (which still arrive weekly if not daily), reviewed dozens of cases, and assisted many prisoners. It also educated many students in the causes of, and remedies for, miscarriages of justice.  It gave many law students a passion for criminal legal aid work – where there is no money to be made and certainly no glory.

So – to read the announcement on the INUK website is all the more shocking. (see here… INUK – New Beginnings ). Where innocence work in the UK needs innovation, inspiration and support, it is being told that the day has come to pack our bags and go home. My thoughts are not only with those of us (staff and students alike) who have worked many years to get innocence taken seriously again in the UK, but those prisoners now who will be back at square one, with nowhere to turn yet again. How an ‘innocence network’ can survive, nevermind have any impact, with only one member, will remain to be seen.