This article by Jon Robbins appeared on the Guardian website (here) on
I was witness to an unusual reunion this week, between the former solicitor-general Vera Baird QC, defence lawyer Glyn Maddocks and a 73-year-old Welsh pensioner called Tony Stock. The last time the three of them were together was 15 years ago at the Royal Courts of Justice.
At that point Stock had already spent over quarter of a century fighting to prove his innocence. In July 1970 he was sentenced to 10 years for his part in a brutal robbery in a Leeds shopping centre. Back at the royal courts in 1994, Baird was then junior to Michael Mansfield QC and Stock was Glyn Maddocks’s first client claiming to be the victim of a miscarrige of justice.
Stock and his defence team assumed his name would be cleared after a supergrass confessed to his role, identifying four accomplices, in an attack that involved setting upon staff with iron bars and stealing more than £4,000. That confession was made in 1978.
The wheels of justice, as they say, turn slowly. Stock always fought the conviction. He was one of the first rooftop protesters, and spent almost 100 days on hunger strike. It is astonishing that after 41 years, he is still trying to clear his name – and spending his pension on hiring private investigators to track down the original witnesses.
Three years after Baird, Maddocks and Stock last met, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was set up in 1997 as a response to a scandalous list of miscarriages: the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater Four and the Cardiff Three. The Stock case has a small but significant place in legal history: it is the first and only case to have been referred back to the appeal courts twice by the CCRC. And yet, after a total of four appeals, the conviction remains in place. The 1996 appeal failed despite the dramatic appearance of the supergrass, Sam Benefield, a former member of a vicious east London group, the Thursday gang. He was sneaked through the back door of the Royal Courts of Justice, with an armed guard, dressed as an Arab sheik.
The primary reason for the meeting this week was for Maddocks, Baird and Emily Bolton of the anti-death penalty charity Reprieve to discuss a new organisation called the Centre for Criminal Appeals which will support the investigation of miscarriages.
“The case of Tony Stock is exceptional for many reasons but it’s also a textbook example why we need the CCA,” Maddocks tells me. “The evidence supporting his conviction has been shot to pieces. There is literally nothing left of the prosecution case. Yet he’s still fighting. The system has failed. We need a new approach.”
Since the Stock case, Maddocks has acted in numerous cases of wrongful conviction including that of Paul Blackburn, whose conviction for the attempted murder and sexual assault of a nine-year-old boy was quashed after 25 years in 2005 and Johnny Kamara, whose conviction for murder was quashed in 2000 after 17 years.
The idea behind the Centre for Criminal Appeals is to fill what Madocks calls “a very real justice gap”. The lawyer points to the network of help for those claiming to be victims of judicial error: the university-based Innocence Projects, a diminishing number of criminal defence lawyers who are willing to spend time on poorly remunerated appeals work and other initiatives such as the Inside Justice led by the journalist Louise Shorter at Inside Times. However, Maddocks argues, there is nothing “which brings together the level of expertise necessary”.
What about the CCRC? “When the Commission came on stream, we all thought that it was Valhalla,” replies Baird. She points out that the human rights group JUSTICE, which pioneered miscarriage investigations, then retreated from case work, not wanting to tread on the commission’s toes. “It has taken quite a while to appreciate that the problems aren’t over.”
The three lawyers behind the CCA argue that the commission’s resources are becoming increasingly stretched, with more than 1,000 cases a year to progress (the commission has been outspoken about its own funding issues) and now “faces an almost impossible task in undertaking the depth and level of investigation that is required in all but a very few of them”. The watchdog has come under some pretty heavy fire, as critics argue the Birmingham-based body is no longer fit for purpose.
Baird talks of the “studied and obligatory neutrality” of the CCRC. “What is needed,” he says, “is somebody that’s going to investigate what might be unlikely leads. You need somebody on the side of the victims of the miscarriage of justice.”
“The CCRC are decision-makers. They’re not an advocacy organisation,” argues Emily Bolton. As she points out, the CCA will be able to cherry pick cases, whereas the commission is statutorily obliged to consider all applications. Bolton helped set up the Innocence Project New Orleans, providing legal representation to the wrongfully convicted. “We started in 2001 and our work has led to the reversal of 19 convictions,” she says.
They also point to problems of legal aid, which have long meant that defence lawyers are increasingly unwilling to take on non-remunerative appeal cases. Lawyers get paid £49.70 per hour for this work – a rate that has not changed since 2001 – and then they aren’t paid until a case is finished, which could be years. There aren’t many lawyers who are “still sufficiently committed or financially reckless”, as Maddocks puts it, to take on “the often thankless task of trying to overturn false convictions”.
The idea for the CCA is for a two-year pilot staffed by one or two case workers to demonstrate to public and private funders that a specialised, not-for-profit legal centre can deliver results. The pilot will rely on legal aid for its casework where available but seeks grant funding for its criminal justice policy role. It hopes to establish a sustainable funding model after two years.
Jon Robins is editing the Justice Gap series, including a collection of essays entitled Wrongly Accused? Who is Responsible for Investigating Miscarriages of Justice, out on 10 October