All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Meeting
Portcullis House, Westminster, Tuesday 5 February 2019.
Commission to investigate wrongful
convictions and imprisonment
Chairman Barry Sheerman MP (Labour, Huddersfield).
Other MPs and Lords present: Lucy Powell, (Labour, Manchester Central), Andy Slaughter (Labour, Hammersmith), Baroness Stern (Cross-bencher) and Lord Garnier QC (Conservative).
The chairman announced the setting up of a Commission to investigate, take evidence, and receive submissions on wrongful convictions and imprisonment.
He also announced that a US law firm had put up some funding so that the Commission could function effectively.
Commenting on the announcement, Dennis Eady, Cardiff Law School said that over the last 20 years the UK had been following the US model, and abandoned due process widely, thus increasing wrongful convictions and increasing the prison population drastically. In addition, we refused to overturn convictions! “Things need to change at every level.” The ‘Death Sentence’ now operated on the elderly imprisoned for sex offences. Many 70+ convicts will die in prison.
Jan Cunliffe, JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association): The public is interested, but the media does a hatchet job. We need a balanced presentation on prosecutions. Decent investigations would easily outweigh the cost of long-term imprisonment, so it costs more for the Supreme Court to say NO. (Do they know? Do they care?)
Liam Allen, Innovation of Justice, reminded the meeting that “These cases ARE in the Public Interest.” He was worried that the new Commission would take one aspect at a time, and that it would be too slow. He forecast that all the authorities involved would blame each other, CPS, Police, CCRC etc.
Asked how long it will take to set up the Commission Barry Sheerman told the meeting : “It is in process and will not be long.”
Speaker 1. Lucy Powell MP spoke forcefully about the injustice of Joint Enterprise:
- Many people are convicted of murder with no evidence
- Reason: lowering of the evidential ‘bar’
- High proportion of them young people (UK has 350 under-18s lifers, while in the rest of Europe it was two or three.)
- Autism is a frequent contributor to JE prosecution
- 2016 Supreme Court deemed the JE law had been misinterpreted for 30 years
- Since then no successful appeals
- Closed ranks, to prevent flood gates opening
- 2018 clear-cut Laura Mitchell case refused
- Parliament needs to rectify the law.
Additional points were made by Jan Cunliffe, Lisa Hanmer and Deb Madden from the JENGbA team.
Speaker 2. Matt Foot, Sam Hallam’s solicitor, spoke about the refusal of the Supreme Court to allow compensation for wrongful imprisonment on the grounds that there was no evidence to show innocence beyond reasonable doubt. It was a 5:2 decision.
- This was a nadir in the history of Justice
- Despite advice from the Justice Select Committee to increase CCRC referrals – only 0.77% referral rate.
- The Thames Valley Police found the investigation atrocious
- All authorities were cutting corners
- Sam Hallam was the victim on the basis of no evidence
- 14 witnesses said he was not at the scene
- The higher you go in the Justice system the less justice you get
- You have to prove your innocence!
Questions Time/Comments :
Ian PPMI (Progressing Prisoners Maintaining Innocence): The Justice System has a problem. Increasing numbers of successful appeals undermine confidence in the justice process. (Do they realise? Do they care?)
Sue PPMI: Joint Enterprise murder offences are certainly high because the evidential bar is lowered. PPMI has gathered data from some 300 prisoners maintaining innocence in more than 60 UK prisons. The other ‘bulge’ in wrongful convictions is for sex offences, many historic. How can you defend yourself against claims of crimes said to be committed 40 years ago with no evidence, and then look for fresh evidence to appeal?
Michelle Bates (sister of Barry George): Police had already decided guilt before her brother went to court. This is commonly the case. They ignore the guidelines which are in place.
Mr Gorton, private detective: make sure you get your defence in order right from the start. He is setting up a not-for-profit detection organisation for this purpose.
Prof Clair McGourlay, University of Manchester: Supreme Court – arrogance. US has a two-tier system and the poor are more likely to be convicted. Exactly the same is happening in the UK. Innocence groups have been fighting for 25 years. Same discussions, same lack of effect.
Barry Sheerman in reply: don’t despair. together we are going for evidence- based arguments and with the passion of the support groups and families we can work together effectively.
Lucy Powell in reply: It is institutional and cultural conspiracy, not human error, and the public appetite for stringency. We need a slight shift for change.
Emily Bolton, Centre for Criminal Appeals: 44% of evidence that could exonerate the defendant is present in the police files if they are opened post-conviction. Make the police accountable and have open files as in the US.
Anton, film maker with JENGbA team: it is important that all stories get told. Joint Enterprise is not recorded on convictions – just murder. It is hard to access prisoners to gather such stories. The Laura Mitchell case (appeal denied by the Court of Appeal despite a referral by the CCRC) is not on video, and (expensive) transcripts are destroyed after a few years.
Andy Slaughter MP: Films are indeed good, e.g. the Jimmy McGovern one on JE. We need more programmes on Miscarriages of Justice, and more parliamentary action. Cuts in Legal Aid, Court services, and the CCRC resources are also contributing to worrying levels of injustice.
Danny Barrs, PPMI: There has been no mention of sentencing guidelines which can lead to miscarriages of justice through inconsistency of application and interpretation. Miscarriages of justice are not exclusively linked to sexual or violent crimes and that there are plenty of white-collar miscarriages of justice which are just not as newsworthy.
The ability for a prisoner to work on an appeal is so limited in custody that that in itself is a miscarriage of justice.
Concluding message from the APPG meeting:
A Commission of Inquiry is being set up, and not a moment too soon.
The notion that every one of the 83,000 people in jail was rightfully convicted is patently absurd and beyond any credibility.
With the support groups and families providing the determination and much of the information needed, the APPG is totally committed to feed evidence of wrongful and unjust convictions through to government.
We now have a means to achieve real, fundamental and lasting CHANGE.