Feature - The case for innocence

Michael Naughton and Julie Price explain the work of innocence projects and the Innocence Network UK, and call for pro bono help from legal executives

A range of different 'live client' schemes and activities have already evolved in the UK, ranging from provision of initial advice and assistance to full representation.

Against this background, 'innocence projects', a new and exciting specialist area of clinical education is emerging within the universities under the banner of the Innocence Network UK (INUK), established in 2004 as the coordinating organisation for member projects and to steer the wider 'innocence projects movement' in this country. This initiative has been welcomed by criminal lawyers and campaigning groups in the miscarriages of justice community as filling an advice gap, whilst at the same time providing a unique hands-on educational experience for students.

  • What is an Innocence Project?

The aim of innocence projects is to supplement students' education through working with 'live-clients' via a student-led specialist law clinic with a focus on the area of miscarriages of justice, whilst serving to meet the unmet legal needs of innocent victims of wrongful convictions and those whose cases fall outside the scope of legal aid.

The defining feature of innocence projects is that they involve students in researching real criminal cases. This investigative work may be conducted by undergraduate and/or postgraduate students in conventional academic settings or by those enrolled on LPC/BVC programmes. The students' work is supervised by academics in conjunction with practising solicitors, who work on the cases pro bono.

The case for innocence projects reflects the complexities and resource constraints of the present criminal appeals system. As is well known, some prisoners have spent many years in prison before eventually having their convictions overturned. Despite this, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the body set up in the wake of notorious cases such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, was not designed to rectify the errors of the system and ensure that wrongful convictions are overturned.

Instead, its remit under the 1995 Criminal Appeal Act dictates that it review the cases of alleged or suspected victims of miscarriages of justice to test whether they were obtained in strict accordance with the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. <

If it is found that procedures were contravened and that there is a 'real possibility' that the Court of Appeal will overturn the conviction, the case is then referred back to the Court of Appeal.

Paradoxically the CCRC will, logically, refer the cases of guilty offenders if their convictions were procedurally incorrect, but, at the same time, however, it may often be helpless to refer the cases of innocent victims of wrongful conviction if they do not meet the requisite criteria of fresh evidence or fresh arguments. Even if the CCRC has evidence indicating that an applicant is innocent, if this evidence was available at the original trial it may be unable to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.

  • A vital resource

Innocence projects attempt to find legal grounds in the hope that alleged innocent victims of wrongful conviction are successful in achieving a referral back to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) or, if they are second or out-of-time appeals, via the CCRC.

In this context, innocence projects exist not only as a resource for student education about the ills of the criminal justice system, but they also provide opportunities for researching the various aspects of the problem and the obstacles that innocent victims of wrongful conviction/imprisonment, their families and friends, and, even, wider society continue to experience. The lessons learned in undertaking innocence project cases not only educate students, but can be fed back into the criminal justice system to effect legal reforms that will hopefully reduce the possibility of wrongful convictions in the future.

There are no definitive criteria for innocence projects, other than that they are concerned with allegations of factual innocence as opposed to allegations of technical miscarriages of justice.

Existing innocence projects, however, have focused resources on victims of wrongful conviction who received a significant custodial sentence and have enough time remaining on their sentence to allow for student review and investigation. This criterion is the product of a pragmatic decision about which prisoners it was possible to assist when the INUK was faced with a mountain of letters requesting assistance. In time, as more innocence projects are established, it is envisaged that they will also provide assistance to victims of wrongful conviction who have served their prison sentence or who did not receive a custodial sentence but continue to protest their innocence.

  • Call for help

Whilst innocence projects are still new to the UK, the movement has received significant media attention, including a BBC Rough Justice documentary, 'The Innocence Brief', based on five students from the University of Bristol Innocence Project, aired in April 2007, and a BBC drama series 'The Innocence Project'. This has all contributed to a growing interest and enthusiasm from other institutions and universities.

Indeed, since the first projects were set up in Bristol and then Cardiff in 2005, the INUK now has 16 member universities, which have recently started or are considering setting up an innocence project. These include Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Leicester, Bangor, Bournemouth, Lancaster, Hertfordshire, Anglia Ruskin, BPP Law School, City Law School, Oxford Institute of Legal Practice, and most recently, Cambridge University, with other interest in the pipeline extending to Belfast, Scotland and Ireland.

With the rapid expansion of the innocence movement, there is now an increasing demand for practising legal executives with experience in criminal appeals work who are willing to provide pro bono assistance to innocence projects by supporting and supervising student casework, as well as formally representing the client in filing an application to the CCRC at the later stage of the casework process.

*  For further information about  the INUK, please see innocencenetwork.org.uk. If you would like to know more about how you might get involved,  please contact innocence-network@bristol.ac.uk or call Julie Price on 029 2087 6705.

Dr Michael Naughton is director of the University of Bristol Innocence Project and Julie Price is the pro bono & Innocence Project co-ordinator at Cardiff Law School