The APPG on Miscarriages of Justice – Unfinished Business
In 2019, a Westminster Commission made up of a growing number of MPs concerned by the rising tide of wrongful convictions across England and Wales was formed across party political lines in search of solutions. Establishing an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPGMJ), they launched a public inquiry to examine the ability of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to deal with miscarriages of justice.
The Commission’s call for evidence from the general public and victims of miscarriages of justice came to a close in September last year, with preliminary hearings being held in the months that followed. Publication of these submissions and their report has been delayed by almost a year as a result of COVID-19, but of course, the many problems hampering wrongful convictions, haven’t gone away. Injustice doesn’t take time off, or get prorogued, it festers. Happily, the APPGMJ announced a few weeks ago (25 September) that its much anticipated report is due to be launched shortly at an online event.
Historically, the voices of wrongly convicted prisoners have long remained unheard, disenfranchised from the very point they suffer a miscarriage of justice. Incarceration places people in a position of vulnerability and powerlessness that only serves to compound their suffering, entrenching the sense of injustice and alienation that these innocent men and women have already felt at the hands of the state.
Without meaningful parliamentary representation for those affected, the issue and indeed prevalence of miscarriages of justice has – for the most part – fallen under the political radar. This lack of scrutiny has contributed to the culturally ingrained belief that all criminal convictions are inevitably and inexorably ‘safe’. Gerard Sinclair succinctly captured this culture of complacency when he said that “society consider that they have sorted the problems of miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions because we’ve created a Criminal Cases Review Commission, so we can all go to bed and sleep safe at night”.[i]
So, the launch of an All-Party Parliamentary Group feels like a big step forward. Recognition, at last, that there is a problem. That said, there is a risk that the Westminster Commission’s first inquiry may amount to little more than a recapitulation of an earlier House of Commons Justice Committee’s (HCJC) inquiry from March 2015, when it too scrutinised the CCRC.[ii] Scathing in its remarks, their findings vindicated the concerns that prisoners and campaigners had been highlighting for years, but which – up until that point – had been all too easily dismissed.
In practice however, little actually changed. Of the 8 recommendations made by the HCJC, only one has been implemented. This was the power to compel private bodies to disclose material to the CCRC.[iii] The inertia that followed the publication of this report has deeply reduced our confidence in the power of such Committees to actually bring about change, and it will be the responsibility of the current APPG to re-instil such trust in miscarriage of justice organisations, victims, and their families.
Simply reiterating these outstanding points again in 2020, won’t do much to move us along from where we were in 2015. The APPG membership must be prepared to face the same kind of resistance to change that their colleagues in the HCJC had to deal with. Miscarriage of justice victims can only hope that they will muster all of their combined influence to bring about the remedial action so urgently needed – and now five years overdue.
When the CCRC first began its operations in March 1997, many hoped that it would represent the miracle cure needed for miscarriages of justice. Too often in its history, however, this has proved not to be the case. In medical trials, more is learnt from those patients who do not respond to treatment than those who do. It is important therefore, that lessons are learnt from unsuccessful cases in order to strengthen the potency and effectiveness of the remedy.
As a one-time applicant to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) myself, sharing my own ‘lived experience’ of the criminal justice system with the APPGMJ was important to me. Having fought to clear my name for more than a decade, my hope – and that of the many other contributors in a similar situation to my own – is that these offerings may encourage much needed reform.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the recommendations made over five years ago by the HCJC in more depth, so that we can all make sure they won’t remain untouched for another half decade. Drawing upon some of my own experiences, and ahead of the APPGMJ’s forthcoming report, we’ll look at those areas in most need of reform, asking what happens – or doesn’t happen – following a wrongful conviction.
The seeds of injustice are of course, sown much earlier than this. They fall at the moment of arrest. Whilst scrutinising these pre-conviction stages is essential, the APPG has chosen to begin by addressing the post-conviction process, and with good reason. Systemic inefficiencies and delays mean that many men and women find themselves needlessly languishing in our prisons for years, sometimes decades, before their convictions are finally overturned.
Justice delayed in this way is hardly justice at all, so it is imperative that we find ways to speed the whole process up. When miscarriages of justices do happen, they need to spotted quickly and put to bed before the harm they cause becomes irreparable.
[i] Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice – Second Evidence Session (Part I)
[ii] House of Commons Justice Committee – Twelfth Report of Session 2014 – 15, HC 850 (London: The Stationery Office Limited, 25 March 2015).
[iii] Now enshrined in s18A of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 as amended by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (Information) Act 2016
Mark Alexander, LL.B. (Hons) LL.M.
Mark is a former Rugby School and King’s College London student who was imprisoned in 2010 at the age of 22. He has since completed both his undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees in prison with the University of London. Mark received the Longford Trust’s Patrick Pakenham scholarship award for Law in 2016, and is a member of the Prisoner Policy Network.