For whom the bell tolls

By Emily Bolton

The experience of being in prison is one of deprivation. Behind bars, an individual is stripped of so many things — of family and friends, of choice, of freedom. For any prisoner, these deprivations are hard to bear. For innocent people trapped in the delays that beset the British appeals process, there is the additional layer of anguish and frustration — because they should never be in prison in the first place.

The losses that such prisoners face are particularly acute when they become irrevocable — which is what happens when you are are bereaved while you wait for justice.

This is an aspect of the (glacial) pace of the British appeals system that is rarely discussed. In the five years it typically takes a wrongfully convicted person to get an application past the gatekeeper, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and in front of the Court of Appeal for a decision, prisoners’ loved ones are dying.

In 2014, Sophie attended a funeral for the mother of one of her wrongfully convicted prisoner clients. He was not permitted to be there himself. In the last month one of the prisoners I represent lost his partner and his daughter within the space of 5 weeks. Another of my clients has a wife who is terribly ill and and it is a race against the clock as to whether she will live to see her husband exonerated.

There has been much discussion in the legal community about the issue of compensation for the wrongfully convicted. But NOTHING can compensate for these losses, for being unable to be there for a parent, a partner or a child, in their final hours.

A grotesquely long wait for justice in the British appeals system is not anomalous. As the system is currently structured and resourced, three years is the absolute minimum time a wrongfully convicted prisoner can expect to serve before they will have the opportunity to present their evidence of innocence and hopefully be set free. Five years is more typical. This is simply unacceptable.

Recent Select Committee findings indicated that the CCRC is too under-resourced to be effective. At the same time, criminal defence solicitors face further cuts to legal aid rates, not to mention the pressure being put on police and the CPS to meet targets, and on the court system to support the growing number of litigants in person. These systematic problems need addressing, or we will see an ever growing number of individuals trapped in prison and experiencing the additional trauma of losing loved ones without even being able to say goodbye.

Emily Bolton is founder of the UK charity the Centre for Criminal Appeals, soon to be launched as a not-profit law practice to address the shortfall in access to justice for wrongfully convicted prisoners in England and Wales. In 2000, Emily established Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), a non-profit law office providing legal representation to the wrongfully convicted in the Deep Southern United States. IPNO has so far freed 25 innocent prisoners.

Please note the Centre for Criminal Appeals is not currently engaged in the provision of legal services, is not regulated by the Solicitors Regulation authority, and the UK cases referred to in this blog relate to the casework pilot being conducted by the writers through their practice with a separate fully regulated law firm, Scott-Moncrieff and Associates, Ltd.