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Today (24th January 2018), the BBC carried a front-page story under the headline, “Hundreds of cases dropped over evidence disclosure failings”.

In response, the Centre for Criminal Appeals said:

“The recent BBC findings of a systematic failure of the police and the CPS to appropriately handle disclosures of evidence resonate with our experience investigating miscarriages of justice in England and Wales. The BBC findings underscore what we have been saying for the past two years – poor disclosure protocols lead to miscarriages of justice and innocent people being sent to prison. We have seen time and again in the cases of the clients we represent, how a mishandling and incompetent analysis of evidence has led to wrongful convictions. And these mistakes only become more difficult to rectify post-conviction.

It is for precisely this reason we launched the Open Justice Charter in partnership with other lawyers, academics and journalists, calling for greater transparency and openness in our justice system. How can the public place trust in our justice system when these failings are exposed? We call on the new Justice Secretary David Gauke to urgently overhaul the system to ensure disclosures are properly handled by the police and the CPS, so that people accused of crimes can properly defend themselves with the evidence available.”

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Here, one of the people we represent – who has always maintained innocence – describes the experience of leaving prison without having had the conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal.

I have been out of prison for almost 2 weeks and I can tell you that things are more difficult than imagined.

The journey away from the prison was a curious experience. Having spent 14 years inside, constantly maintaining my innocence, the process of release was traumatic. Even to the last minute inside I was assumed guilty, and I had staff telling me to use the skills I had learned during offending behaviour work to ensure I don’t “reoffend”.

On the train, it felt almost as if I was entering a new world. In prison people were used to me continually maintaining innocence and now I was moving to a world where I would just be considered an ex-offender, with no recognition of innocence or maintained innocence. With each mile along the train tracks, I was moving away from my recognised stance.

Now I am feeling like I am devoid of energy. I had let myself believe that once I left prison I would be able to focus more on clearing my name, but if I am honest I have very little time at present. Simple things like sorting our benefits are difficult. A lack of ID makes the free world so much harder to engage with. I have also been advised to change my name –that in itself is a difficult thing. The lack of ID in my current name makes it complicated but, more than that, it feels as though by changing name I am saying that my name is a criminal name which I don’t want to be associated with.

And I suppose I should admit that I am, for the first time allowing myself to feel. I feel resentment now. I never allowed myself negative feelings about my situation whilst I was incarcerated as I didn’t want to waste energy. Now though, I cannot help but feel. I am having to rebuild a life, in extremely difficult circumstances, when I should never have lost the life I had. Normally, after a great trauma, a person can lean on family and/or friends for support. But having been inside for so long I have lost all of these. I have lost everything, through no fault of my own, and the idea and reality of having to try to rebuild some form of normality is a daunting task.

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A judgement handed down today by the High Court in Cardiff outlines that individual errors in council tax non-payment cases may mean that between 9.5 and 18% of committals to prison for debt are unlawfully handed down each year.

Lord Justice Hickinbottom’s analysis of 95 individuals sent to prison between April 2016 and July 2017 found that between 9 and 17 individuals will have been sent there unlawfully because the court ordered repayment over an excessive window of time.

The judgement relates to a legal challenge, launched with the help of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, alleging that systematic failings have led to high rates of unlawful imprisonment for council tax debts.

The Claimant, Melanie Woolcock, is a single mother from Wales who was unlawfully sentenced to 81 days in prison for falling behind on her council tax payments after becoming unemployed. Ms. Woolcock successfully challenged her sentence in January 2017, and brought judicial review proceedings to prevent people in council tax debt losing their liberty unlawfully.

Barrister Cathryn McGahey QC arguing on behalf of the Claimant places the number of unlawful committals to prison a year at a much higher figure of 52%. She alleges that incorrect means assessments, or an erroneous judgement that failure to pay was because of ‘culpable neglect’ or ‘willful refusal’ are additional reasons why such imprisonments may be unlawful.

The judgement finds that individual errors are to blame for the high number of mistakes and states that oversights made by a proportion of magistrates in council tax cases does not amount to a systematic deficiency. It acknowledges that “Ms McGahey appears to be right to condemn the relevant magistrates (and their legal advisers) as being ignorant of well-established law”. The judgement suggests that further training and guidance may be issued to legal advisors and solicitors to address these problems.

Naima Sakande, Women’s Justice Advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals said:

“The price of ignorance in these cases is simply too high. The judgement has exposed some deep failings in the council tax system. The toll of being sent to prison unlawfully cannot be overstated and more must be done to protect society’s most vulnerable from needlessly losing their liberty. Poverty is not a crime and our judicial system needs to do more to acknowledge this.”

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Lucy Powell MP has raised in the House of Commons the issue of the lack of access to trial transcripts, which currently inhibits miscarriage of justice enquiries.

Powell asked Justice Secretary David Lidington to "look at making the courts more transparent" and "particularly allowing defendants and those that have been sentenced to get transcripts and copies of the judge's direction to the jury".

Powell told the Commons "in potential miscarriage of justice cases this can be incredibly difficult to get".

It's often vital that defendants have access to court transcripts and judge's summaries, especially in cases of potential miscarriages of justice. I'm pleased the Minister has agreed to look into this and will be providing me with a written answer to my question pic.twitter.com/SGi60QCFHM

— Lucy Powell MP (@LucyMPowell) December 5, 2017

All Crown Court proceedings in England and Wales are digitally audio recorded, however accessing these recordings often proves difficult. At present, obtaining trial transcripts can be prohibitively expensive, running in tens of thousands of pounds which legal aid is unlikely to cover the cost of. Moreover, current retention policies mean that the digital audio recordings on which transcripts are based are destroyed after just 7 years. 

This hampers investigations into potential miscarriages of justice as without a full transcript, it is not possible to work out exactly what happened at a trial - including what precisely witnesses said and whether the trial was fair.

More freely available transcript access was one of the reforms called for by the Centre for Criminal Appeals in the Open Justice Charter, which it developed in conjunction with academics and journalists.

Lidington said he would be providing a written response to Powell's question.

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JOB ADVERT -  Women’s Justice Advocate

Deadline for applications: 25th August 2017 at 17.00 hours

FULL TIME HOURS FOR A 12 MONTH FIXED TERM CONTRACT

£35,000 per annum plus pension contribution

Interviews to take place early September in Central London

                                               

About CCA

 The Centre for Criminal Appeals is a charity and legal aid law practice that investigates and litigates miscarriages of justice.   We exist to get people out of prison by overturning unsafe convictions and unfair sentences.  Our casework is used to drive badly needed reform in the criminal justice system.

Our founder and Legal Director Emily Bolton previously founded the Innocence Project New Orleans and CCA is modelled on the successful practice she developed there, using investigation as the tool to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.  We believe that most cases are won through the sort of “boots on the ground investigation” that so few legal aid defence firms are now able to offer due to the massive cutbacks in recent years.  Our charitable status enables us to offer our clients the comprehensive service which we believe is required to overturn wrongful convictions.

Our Managing Director Suzanne Gower is an experienced criminal practitioner who was one of the solicitors who represented 20 of the families in the Hillsborough Inquests which obtained the historic verdict of unlawful killing.  She has brought to CCA her passion for uncovering wrongdoing and holding those responsible to account.

Supported by our partners at the Lankelly Chase Foundation we are expanding the work which we have done to-date on challenging current criminal justice practice in relation to the imprisonment and sentencing of women through dedicated strategic litigation.  Our Women’s Justice Initiative is particularly aimed at using criminal appeals as impact litigation for imprisoned women who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage.

We are looking for a strong minded, politically engaged individual who will share our passion for our work.    You should be able to demonstrate a genuine interest in CCA’s goals and a commitment to genuine client care.  The prisoners that we represent are at the centre of everything that we do and you would need to be able to demonstrate that you are a compassionate individual who would be comfortable dealing with sensitive situations and challenging crises, as well as managing difficult conversations.

What does the role involve?

We are offering someone the exciting opportunity to join our small but dedicated team as the leader of our newly expanded Women’s Justice initiative.

For a full copy of the job description, please click here.

Why should I apply?

This is a unique opportunity to work in a not-for-profit  law practice working on overturning wrongful convictions and challenging unfair sentences for vulnerable women.  You will lead our  strategic litigation in this area whilst also helping to work on our policy and reform initiatives.

We are looking for an experienced criminal defence practitioner to develop the Women’s Justice Initiative as a centre of excellence that provides specialist legal advice for vulnerable women, whilst also providing resources, training and advice for others working in the area.

What experience is required?

Essential

·           Legal qualifications – You must be educated to degree level or equivalent and qualified to practice as a barrister or solicitor in England and Wales with significant experience of criminal law and criminal appeals.

·           Vision for the strategic direction of the Women’s Justice Initiative including the communications strategy necessary to ensure that the individual casework can be used to leverage system-wide reform.

·           Knowledge and understanding of the need for a gender sensitive approach to tackling the disproportionate disadvantage experienced by women in the criminal justice system, as set out in the Corston Report

·           Recognition of the difference it means to be working for a charity rather than in a for –profit context.

·           You must be an a persuasive and pragmatic character who is able to interact with, influence and support key individuals at all levels across the organisation.  The ability to manage relationships with external partners is essential as this is an outward facing role.

·           Eligible to live and work in the UK

Desirable

·           Demonstrable experience in using a variety of IT packages (MS Word, Excel, Case Management Systems, Outlook etc.).

.           Knowledge and experience of public law

.           Experience working in the voluntary sector either as a staff member or volunteer

            Experience of making grant funding applications.

·           Proven ability in dealing sensitively with vulnerable people and managing difficult situations and conversations.

·           Proven ability to communicate accurately, clearly and concisely, both verbally and in writing with a wide range of clients and various stakeholders.

·           Proven ability to organise and prioritise a complex workload and work to tight deadlines whilst maintaining a “can-do” attitude.

·           Proven ability to work and contribute in a team environment including supervisory skills

·           Proven ability to be self-sufficient in relation to administration, typing and IT requirements

.           Willingness to work flexibly, including attending evening events and travelling to other parts of the country, including overnight stays.

What else should I know?

The Centre for Criminal Appeals is committed to promoting equality, diversity and to providing an inclusive and supportive environment and we seek people who share these values.

 

Applications

Please send a covering letter and CV to Suzanne.gower@criminalappeals.org.uk.

Only applications received before 17.00 hours on Friday 25th August will be considered.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The lawyer who overturned the ban on prisoners receiving books from their loved ones is to lead a project challenging the imprisonment of women for minor, non-violent crimes.

Sam Genen, who has an impressive track record of fighting for the rights of women prisoners, including by challenging the invasive strip searching of women in several prisons, joins legal charity the Centre for Criminal Appeals this week.

A former Times lawyer of the week, Sam will lead the Centre’s Women Sentencing Project, which aims to cut the destructive use of prison terms to punish women for minor, non-violent offences, such as nonpayment of council tax.

Nearly 10 years after the landmark Corston Report exposed the failings surrounding the imprisonment of women, it remains the case that single mothers, victims of abuse and individuals suffering from addictions are all too frequently being given stints in jail instead of the support they need.

Suzanne Gower, Managing Director of the Centre, commented: “Throughout his career Sam has proven himself to be an innovative and creative lawyer and a committed and fearless advocate for the rights of women prisoners. I have no doubt he will excel in this new role, challenging the senseless and unjust practices that currently see so many women locked up instead of given the help they need.”

Sam, commenting on his appointment, said: “I am flattered to be taking over the already impressive women’s sentencing project.  The Centre for Criminal Appeals is an amazing charity and I hope to have a tangible impact.” 

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A response to David Cameron's prison speech

It was refreshing to hear a Prime Minister, and a Conservative one at that, promising to introduce some of the reforms that prison campaigners have been calling for since records began. It is also surprising to find so many areas of agreement with David Cameron.

It is true, for example, that reoffending rates are too high and that the experience of many within prison walls is inadequate and shameful.

However, Cameron opened his speech with a strange claim to fame – that he was the first Prime Minister in 20 years to do a speech just about prisons. Putting aside the fact that for more than a quarter of that, he’s been the PM, and the more recent deluded contribution to the debate by Mr Gove, there are good reasons not to consider prisons in isolation.

Prison is only the tip of the criminal justice iceberg.

It is the place of last resort and the worst-case scenario.

Discussing prison in isolation from the rest of the criminal justice system is deeply unhelpful. What happens in the police station, the court and the community are significant, essential elements of the solution.

Every one of the principles of reform that Cameron laid out applies just as much, if not more, to those professionals engaging with vulnerable people outside, but at risk of going into, the prison system.

It is absolutely right to explore more effective ways to help people who are in prison improve their literacy and kick their drug habit. But it is far more effective to do this before they are incarcerated. To see these two as distinct from each other is to miss valuable opportunities to have a far greater impact.

Structural imbalances are exacerbating disadvantage

For some the inadequacy of the current system is even more potent.

Women are being imprisoned more often than men, further from home and in inappropriate institutions – nearly all of the women’s prisons are the highest category, which only a tiny proportion of the female prison population has been sentenced to. 70% of women in prison are on remand, and never receive a custodial sentence. It is not because they need to be there, but because resources are not being invested in the alternatives.

Although 71% of them will be in prison for 12 months or less, while they are there, many, many of them are losing their children, their homes, their jobs and any stability they had. They are experiencing extremely high rates of mental illness and self-harm. There is ample evidence that prison for women, particularly those who serve short sentences for minor, non-violent crimes, exacerbates the problem.

This is not a new realisation. The evidence was highlighted 10 years ago by Baroness Corston. She concluded at that time that “Custody as it exists today is disproportionately harsher for women than men,” and still far too little has changed.

Cameron’s speech, and Gove’s subsequent offerings, are incredibly thin on the ground in terms of any concrete suggestions about what, other than the current arrangements, might work. The eggs seem to be mostly in the electronic tagging basket.

By focusing so much attention on the concern for where an individual is, Cameron is treading the old path that Gove is a such a keen proponent of, and which has led to the inadequate prison situation. Restricting someone’s movements does nothing to address the elements of their life that led to their conviction. It is unclear what “chances for change” Cameron has in mind.

There is potential within the existing system

We talk about a criminal justice system for good reason – people move through its various elements, often circling in and out due to re-offending, or breaches. Changes at various points have implications elsewhere. Understanding what works means looking at the whole system.

It might be that there are solutions that exist in other unexpected corners of it that can contribute to the outcomes desired further down the line. There are potentially powerful provisions within the legal system that are not yet being used to their greatest advantage. For example, Cameron may not wish to make changes to the sentencing powers of judges, but what about looking at how magistrates, judges and juries get their information? Perhaps better use of pre-sentencing reports, for example, would ensure that courts are getting a rounded view of an individual, and so allow them to make an informed decision about what the most appropriate sentence might be.

For this to work we need to connect lawyers, jurors, the judiciary and all those working in alternatives to custody with those in the prison system.

There are many aspects of what Cameron is proposing that do have promise, but it is not enough. Not only are there signs that there is little meaningful intention behind the rhetoric, particularly from the Minister who will be responsible for implementation. For us to see the real change that we need, it is essential to think more co-operatively, more boldly, and more openly. Only then we will see the turn around that will make a difference.

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Police and Crown Prosecution Service disclosure failings outlined in a new report increase the risks of miscarriages of justice occurring in criminal cases, according to the Centre for Criminal Appeals.

The CPS Inspectorate report’s findings also underpin the need for greater access to police files following a conviction in order to ensure unsafe convictions can be corrected, according to the Centre.

The report, published yesterday, found that in 40.7% cases, police did not fully meeting their disclosure obligations – up from 38.5% in 2015.

In criminal cases, the law requires that the CPS to hand over to the defence any material that may undermine the prosecution case or assist the defence case.  The study found that in only 56.9% of cases prosecutors fully complied with this ongoing duty. Where sufficient disclosure does not happen, miscarriages of justice can result. 

The main police disclosure failings uncovered by the report included the police failing to reveal the previous convictions of witnesses, an issue discovered in 10.1% of cases.

Other disclosure failings including the police listing items gathered during the course of their investigation wrongly, providing poor descriptions of them, or failing to provide a list of such material altogether.

Commenting on the report, the Centre’s Managing Director Suzanne Gower said:

“The disclosure failings exposed by this report are deeply concerning to anyone who rightly expects our justice system to ensure innocent people aren’t wrongly imprisoned.

“The report also shows the need for greater transparency from the police and CPS. We frequently find our ability to investigate miscarriage of justice cases is hampered by not being able to access their documents even after conviction.

“In much of the United States, police files and prosecutor files on a case become a matter of public record once a conviction is made. In England and Wales we are far less transparent – and it is miscarriage of justice victims who lose out as they are prevented from being able to prove their innocence.”

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by Rona Epstein, Research Assistant, Coventry Law School, Coventry University

Well done Sam Genen and Rose Grogan for taking this case on and getting such a good result! This is an important decision.

How did it all start? Usually people sent to prison for not paying council tax get no help. They receive no advice about bail. They do their time. They never imagine that it is an error in law that has put them in a prison cell.  Owing money is not a crime.

This is what happened in this case. A few months ago I wrote an article on council tax debt for the magazine Ready, Steady, Go! which is published by Women in Prison and sent to all the women's prisons. It explained the law about owing council tax and what should happen if someone has difficulty in paying the tax they owe.

Melanie, a single mother in poor health and in financial difficulties, read the article while she was in prison.  She was serving a sentence of 81 days imprisonment for owing council tax. She wrote to Women in Prison asking for advice. Women in Prison contacted me and I then spoke to staff at the Centre for Criminal Appeals who asked Sam Genen and Rose Grogan to act for Melanie. They got Melanie out of prison on bail, and later there was a court hearing. The judge declared that sending Melanie to prison because she owed council tax was an unlawful decision. The magistrates had made a number of serious mistakes.

We are all working now to get this unjust law changed. No one should serve time in prison because of a civil debt. The law is set out here.

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By Emily Bolton

Tonight, “Chicken” George Toca can have a bath if he likes, for the first time since 1984.

At the age of 17, he was sent to prison for life, for a crime he did not commit. They do not have baths at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

While Chicken George maintained his innocence, the system would not let him out. Only now that he has entered an entirely fictional plea of guilty to a lesser offence, is he free.

For the 9 years I worked such cases in the United States, I was told by visiting English volunteers that such atrocities would not occur in the English system.

In one sense they were right — in England, because the sentencing regime is different, you might only serve five or ten years. Unless you were sentenced indeterminately for public protection. Or you insisted on maintaining your innocence, which would mean not getting parole as you had not taken responsibility for your “offending behavior.” What an expression. If my son had been murdered, I would not call what had happened “offending behavior.”

Jeanetta Batiste’s son, Eric, Chicken’s best friend, was murdered in 1984, shot inadvertently by Edison Learson, who was acting as his partner in an armed robbery.

The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Sedley has observed that nothing has more influence over who you believe than who you are. The people who decided on what to believe about who killed Eric Batiste picked on Chicken George, simply because Chicken and Eric were best friends and assumed best friends do everything together, including armed robbery. No further details were required.

Jeanetta Batiste knew it wasn’t Chicken George who killed her son. For 31 years she asked for justice for George and for Eric. But because of who the decision makers were, they decided not to believe her, or the other witnesses, to whom Edison had confessed. Imagine losing your son and then knowing that his death had been made the pretext for a travesty of justice for another young man, for 31 years.

Chicken George’s freedom was won by Innocence Project New Orleans, a non-profit law practice that I once worked for, dedicated to fighting appeal cases for wrongfully convicted prisoners in the deep Southern United States. Chicken’s case was one of the very first we began to investigate, back in 2000. His freedom was ultimately won by persuading an innocent man to plead guilty. The racism built into the American criminal justice system meant that he could never be sure that the people who decide who to believe would ever change their minds and believe the black witnesses who said that Edison Learson shot Eric Batiste. Therefore this plea was unquestionably the right thing to do. Had Chicken George kept fighting, he would most likely have spent the next 31 years in prison as well, if he lasted that long.

But that couldn’t happen here in England, right?

Since starting work on a similar project here in this country, it has become very clear that it not only could happen here, but is happening here. We have heard from English prisoners who cannot get parole because they won’t admit the crime. Prisoners whose legal aid lawyers failed to investigate their alibis. Prisoners whose prosecutions were a “Hail Mary” by a police force that had failed to find evidence necessary to be able to prosecute the real perpetrator. Prisoners just like Chicken George Toca.

The state has stolen 31 years of Chicken George’s life. He is going to need more than a bath to restore him. And the prisoners we represent on appeal are a long way from being home and hosed — they need a whole lot of lawyering before we get them back on the right side of the bars, and in doing so persuade this country’s criminal justice system to clean up its own act.

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