In the Media

Miscarriages of justice: Project innocence

PUBLISHED May 6, 2009

There could be as many wrongly convicted people in prison today as a quarter of a century ago, the Guardian reports today. Richard Foster, the head of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, might not agree, but he acknowledges that after Sean Hodgson's 1982 conviction for murder was quashed in March, on the basis of DNA evidence not available at his trial, many other cases might need to be re-examined. As he also acknowledges, the CCRC is facing a financial squeeze that will make it even more challenging to investigate properly claims of wrongful conviction that come in at the rate of 1,000 or more a year. It is a grim picture that underlines the need for the Guardian's new Justice on Trial series of investigations into claims of miscarriages of justice that is launched this week.

The CCRC, set up in 1997, was a proud achievement of the new Labour government. It was a long-overdue recognition that, as human institutions, the police, the court system and the Home Office are capable of getting it wrong, and not always accidentally - and that what matters is an effective mechanism for restitution. Although the CCRC is much better than the nothing that preceded it, it is still inadequate. The process to trigger a review can be an insurmountable hurdle, for whatever the law says about the right of appeal, other factors intervene. A prisoner's illiteracy, a lack of access to lawyers or simply ignorance of the rules can all stop people getting fair treatment.

Foster aims to tackle some of this: he wants prisoners to have easy access to guidance on the CCRC. But when the prison population continues to rise and the proportion of prisoners with mental illness rises with it, the task is hard. Restrictions on legal aid mean the prosecution is often better funded than the defence (and now solicitors are being asked to compete for contracts to represent defendants in order to drive costs down further). The CCRC needs funding to ensure that it really can fulfil its original purpose.

Even when they are corrected, miscarriages of justice remain terrible personal tragedies. In today's paper Gerry Conlon describes his two breakdowns, an attempted suicide and a struggle with addiction following his release after 15 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings. Others have equally miserable tales to tell. Compensation is no substitute for the support that the wrongfully convicted need. But above all, uncorrected miscarriages of justice corrode respect for legal institutions. As a society we are finally learning that it is less damaging to admit mistakes than to pretend that they never happen. Nothing enhances justice more than the rigorous pursuit of error.