As a criminal lawyer you become naturally entwined with the role of our Criminal Justice System. I witness the impact it has on the lives of my clients and their families every day, so when the opportunity came to attend the ‘United Against Injustice Annual Conference’ with my colleague, Post Conviction expert, Joe Ely, I knew I had to be there.
The event, which was held at Liverpool John Moores University, welcomed representatives from the legal sector as well as individuals who are fighting for justice for their loved ones who they believe have been wrongly convicted of a crime. Their intention is to present valid arguments that the convictions before the Criminal Courts were unsafe for a number of reasons. This can include the use of false confessions, Police misconduct, non-disclosure and issues about the reliability of expert forensic testimony.
These can often be cases, which due to their high public profile, have the additional pressure for the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to obtain convictions quickly to maintain public confidence in the Criminal Justice System.
There have been a number of landmark cases which illustrate miscarriages of justice and later found to be unsafe, such as The Guilford Four (1974); The Birmingham Six (1975); The Maguire Seven (1976) and Judith Ward (1974).
The event featured a presentation from the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC). The CCRC is a publicly funded body that is responsible for investigating alleged miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Commission embarked upon work investigating possible miscarriages of justice on 31 March 1997.
The CCRC has the power to send, or refer a case back to the Court of Appeal if it considers that there is “a real possibility the court will quash the conviction or reduce the sentence in that case".
Since its inception and as of 31 September 2015, 599 cases have been referred to the CCRC, of which 397 appeals were allowed.
• Of the 579 cases where appeals have been heard by the courts
• 397 appeals were allowed and 168 dismissed
• 814 cases are currently under review and 507 are awaiting review
• So far the CCRC have received a total of 19,963 applications (including all ineligible cases) and completed 18,642 cases.
*Statistics source - ccrc.gov.uk as at 13.10.15
You may recall the high profile case of footballer Ched Evans which attracted national media attention. Evans was convicted of rape and received a five year prison sentence in April 2012, this case was referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC following the submission of new evidence.
The primary reasons for miscarriages of justice will always cause debate and split opinion. However, what was evident through the discussions at this event was the necessity of expert evidence in criminal trials which includes cell site analysis and finger print DNA evidence.
The presentation of such evidence is no more than a subjective opinion which is at the mercy of the experience and reliability of the expert who in turn interprets the evidence and therefore forms such an opinion.
What this event emphasised is the importance for criminal defence lawyers to select the most experienced and appropriate expert to challenge the evidence being relied on by the prosecution.