Criminal Injustice System?

Wrongful convictions and their prevalence in the UK Criminal Justice System.

Wrongful convictions are synonymous with the miscarriage of justice. The term refers to the conviction and punishment of individuals for acts they did not commit. Thus, submission to wrongful convictions confines the rights of those who have been hard done by the law. Increasing concern for this notion has led to major calls for justice reform within the English legal system—it has encouraged many to reconsider the effectiveness of the various procedures and processes set in place within our legal framework.

As Founder of the UK Innocence Project, Dr. Michael Naughton, commented, “miscarriages of justice are routine, even mundane features of the criminal justice system”. Therefore, any attempts to tackle these injustices must be based on a reassessment of the UK justice system’s adequacy. The system offers little opportunity for direct appellate review of a criminal conviction. Those convicted of a criminal offence are only given once chance to appeal. Whilst this may seem necessary from an administrative outlook, it minimises assurances of legitimate conviction. Ideally, a balance must be struck between the two conflicting objectives, however, in practice this may not necessarily be achievable. Requirements of good administration generally prevail, and so the system inevitably leans towards the former objective.

Reference to the jurisdiction of our friends across the pond shows a slightly different, potentially more favourable procedure: ‘every defendant convicted in the US courts has a right to one direct appeal, a second opportunity for discretionary direct review, and a subsequent opportunity for discretionary collateral review’ (Lisa Griffiths, The Correction of Wrongful Convictions). In these circumstances, there is an increased chance of wrongful convictions being identified and accordingly dealt with. Although, perhaps this is necessary considering that, for many states in America, the death penalty continues to exist. Note, however, that the Criminal Cases Review Commission—an independent organisation provided by the system—exists within the UK legal framework. It reviews convictions and necessitates post-appellate appeals when required. At least this body offers some form of confidence to the UK system.

Withal, despite these extensive procedures injustices persist. Accordingly, it is encouraged to consider the ways in which these wrongdoings arise. As noted by Dr. Kathryn Campbell and Dr. Myriam Denov (Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa) various factors such as ‘erroneous eyewitness identification and testimony, police and prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, over-reliance on in-custody informants, and unsound forensic science’ all contribute to the truths of injustice within legal frameworks. Each of these elements serve to destabilise the effectiveness of justice systems within any jurisdiction.

The situation is an accepted reality to many, however, various individuals and organisations, for example The Justice Gap, seek reform. Innocence projects have also been developed across the UK. The Innocence Network UK (INUK) is said to have set up 36 innocence projects in universities across the United Kingdom. Numerous cases have been examined and submitted by these member projects to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), in the hope of bringing about change. The University of Bristol boasts the first of many established projects of this kind: UoBIP provides ‘specialist pro bono’ work to this area of law. Note, however, that the effectiveness of this work must be questioned—as Jon Robins commented for The Guardian, ‘only one conviction has ever been overturned on the strength of a university innocence project’s work in the UK’. Thus, whilst efforts to amend this issue continue, a lack of promising results provides little optimism for the future.

Many wrongfully convicted individuals suffer from psychological strain. Similarly, the overall impact of wrongful convictions on communities is detrimental. Public faith in state justice is impaired and public safety is placed at risk. The innocent are forced behind bars whilst the guilty roam free. Justice reform is necessary. The work of individual organisations provides a start, however change to the criminal justice system itself is crucial for any significant improvement to arise. The most obvious way to do this would be via a change in procedure.

This Article was written by Priyani Singanayagam (1st year, LLB Law), in conjunction with Dicta 2017.

Ben Lin