Legal commentator voices concerns over challenges facing university innocence projects in damning new article

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By Katie King on

The odds are stacked against law students investigating potential miscarriages of justice

Instagram (mariadumas)
Instagram (mariadumas)

A prominent legal affairs journalist has raised questions about university innocence projects, where students work with professionals on possible miscarriage of justice cases with a view to securing an appeal court hearing, noting that “only one” conviction has been overturned in the 12 years since the project launched.

Jon Robins, writing in The Guardian, described the innocence movement as “mired in infighting”, in “a state of disarray”, and also claimed that some universities have “abandoned” the project over fears about democratic accountability.

It’s an unusual and interesting angle to take: pro bono projects are more often than not painted as beneficial without question, an exciting and valuable chance for students to work at the coalface of the justice system.

However, the pioneering idea was — according to Robins — thrown into confusion in 2014, when the Innocence Network UK’s founder — University of Bristol academic Dr Michael Naughton — “unilaterally pulled the plug on the scheme”.

Naughton, he recalls, accused some universities:

of jumping on the bandwagon, using projects as ‘a recruiting tool’ to attract students to their courses and playing lip service to its main mission of overturning convictions.

Robins’ article is not, however, a critique of the students and universities who take part in these pro bono projects, but of the system in which these projects operate. This is because the odds are, he explained, undeniably stacked very much against them.

It’s the job of innocence project participants to make applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the public body that has the power to send cases that have already exhausted the normal judicial appeal route back to the Court of Appeal. These projects really are the last resort for the potential miscarriage of justice victims that they help.

However, as Robins points out:

The CCRC (and universities) have to operate in a criminal justice system with a court of appeal that fails to get to grips with miscarriage cases.

As noted in a recent Legal Cheek Journal piece, the law underpinning the CCRC and the criminal appeals system more generally makes it difficult to secure a fresh appeal hearing. The CCRC is chronically underfunded and overwhelmed by applications. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, a successful application is hard to come by. Robins explained:

Last year the Birmingham-based CCRC received 1,599 applications but only referred 36 cases back to the court of appeal — that’s 2.2% of the total number.

The director of the Cardiff University law school innocence project, which is mentioned in the article, spoke to Legal Cheek and reiterated Robins’ line that “statutory constraints” are the real cause of the problem. Professor Julie Price told us that the real scandal is “the refusal of this country’s lawmakers, policy makers and decision makers to take this problem seriously”.

Small wonder then that innocence projects boast just one major success story since their inception 12 years ago. In that case, the hard graft of Cardiff law students saw the appeal court overturn Dwaine George’s murder conviction in 2014. A result like this is an undeniable triumph for the students involved: as PhD student Holly Greenwood from Cardiff points out in Robins’ article, the students who take on these cases really are “starting from a difficult point”.

It’s not the end of the road just yet. Faults and all, universities are sticking with innocence projects. They are, Robins concludes, “committed” to the work that they do, and improving their efficiency by exploring “more effective ways of operating”.