Bristol Uni kicks off Innocence Project to balance Govt stance

“It’s perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished,” said the Prime Minister Tony Blair in June 2002. Dr Michael Naughton, of the School of Law at the University of Bristol, is reminded of that comment as he describes the reasons for setting up the Bristol Innocence Project. The initiative had its official launch last week to tie in with the fourth National Pro Bono Week.

“You have a real tension in our criminal justice system,” argues Naughton. “The problem is that our politicians are saying to us that they have an ‘absolute determination’ to ensure that innocent people are acquitted in criminal trials. That’s what Tony Blair said when he was introducing the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which wiped away a whole raft of safeguards against wrongful convictions.”

The law lecturer is not persuaded by the PM’s ‘biggest miscarriage of justice’ line (which Helena Kennedy QC once said represented “a complete reversal of the approach to justice that every mature democracy in the world respects”). “There’s no evidence of it, because 96.5 per cent of all people who go to a criminal trial are actually found guilty, and so Tony Blair’s assertion is looking at the other 3.5 per cent of defendants who are acquitted,” he says. “If the presumption of innocence means anything, you can’t work on the assumption that everyone who does go to trial is actually guilty and those who are acquitted are guilty people who got away with it.”

The project has its beginnings in the Innocence Network UK, which was launched at a press conference at Bristol University last September. Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, told the conference that, when he was freed after 16 years in prison in 1991, his treatment, and that of the other five, was “worse than when they dragged us off the street and put us in prison”.

The Innocence Project is backed by local lawyers providing their services pro bono. Students will work on ‘live client’ cases of alleged wrongful convictions in collaboration with local criminal defence lawyers. According to Naughton, the Innocence Project is “inspired and motivated” by similar organisations set up in Australia and the US.

The Bristol Innocence Project is the first such initiative in the UK, but there are similar schemes underway in universities in Leeds, Manchester and Warwick. In The Lawyer Euro 100, which was published last month, the profit per equity partner figure given for Allen & Overy was listed as E609,000 (£413,000). The correct figure is E898,000 (£609,000). The Lawyer is happy to correct the mistake.