Centre for Criminal Appeals

 

The Centre for Criminal Appeals is a legal action charity that fights miscarriages of justice and demands reform. Through investigation, litigation and advocacy, the Centre stands up for individual victims of wrongful conviction and unfair sentencing, and uses these cases to teach the criminal justice system the most important lessons from the mistakes it makes.

The Centre currently focuses on three interlinked criminal justice issues. The Innocence Initiative strives to win the freedom of individuals who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. The Women’s Justice Initiative uses advocacy and impact litigation to challenge the injustices faced by women experiencing multiple and severe disadvantage. The Open Justice Initative seeks increased transparency in our justice system to enhance both its accuracy and accountability.

The Centre is modeled on the non-profit legal advocacy organisations which have been successfully exposing and reforming the flaws of the criminal justice system in the United States since the Civil Rights era.

The Women’s Justice Initiative:

The Centre for Criminal Appeal’s Women Justice Initiative has been working with Lankelly Chase to use impact litigation to challenge the injustices women face in the criminal justice system. We fight to raise the voices and experiences of women experiencing multiple and severe disadvantage involved in the criminal process.

Women in prison are too often there needlessly. More than 80% of the women in prison are there for low level, non-violent offences and about half of the women in prison are there for petty crime, the most common of which being theft. Women in prison are also a highly vulnerable group, with nearly half of women inside reporting having suffered domestic violence or sexual abuse. Many of these women do not need to be in prison, and in fact the courts are still struggling to understand the complex trauma involved in abuse and to use it appropriately in mitigation. We need a justice system that is responsive to the root causes of crime and seeks to rehabilitate women, rather than torpedo their lives.

The Women’s Justice Initiative represents women who are severely and multiply disadvantaged, seeking to challenge their sentences or convictions. We work on behalf of:

  • Women imprisoned for minor, non-violent offences
  • Women sent to prison instead of being given the help they need at a psychiatric hospital
  • Women imprisoned for crimes which were actually an act of self-defence against an abuser
  • Innocent women prisoners, especially those whose ‘crime’ was in fact accidental or the result of natural causes.

We also support women to tell their stories of involvement in the criminal justice system and to act as their own advocates for reform. We support women to tell their stories in the press and on our platforms and empower them to share their experiences to leverage systematic change.

Methodologies

Impact Litigation

Impact litigation is the process of choosing cases to litigate that may have a ripple effect on a system, thereby having the ability to create fairer outcomes for more than just the individual represented. What this means in practice is that we carefully screen the letters we receive from women in prison, to select the strongest and most representative cases among them. By securing favourable decisions for these women, we believe the criminal justice system will be strengthened to better protect other women in similar positions.

Trauma Informed Client Care

 We recognise that many of the women who write to us are the victims of trauma, and the way we work is empathetic to those experiences. We endeavour to visit the women we represent in prison as much as possible, work in careful conjunction with their families and outside support networks and responsibly enable them to use their experiences to advocate for reform.

Advocacy and Campaigning

 We believe that impactful stories are a key element of systems change, as they enable people to get on board with our mission for reform. We work with experienced storytellers, supportive journalists and partner organisations to highlight women whose stories may make a difference for good. We empower women by letting them see their voices are valuable and impactful.

Partnerships

We work in partnership with many organisations to achieve our goals. We have the support of many city law firms who donate their pro bono hours to helping our casework, we are assisted by talented university volunteers and are in strategic partnership with barrister’s chambers who provide us with legal advice as well as other criminal justice charities, like the Prisoner’s Advice Service, Public Law Partnership, and the Prison Reform Trust to ensure a unified voice for reform in the sector.

Learning

This is a blog written by a woman we represent, about coming out of prison after having spent 14 years locked up for a crime she did not commit: http://www.criminalappeals.org.uk/news/2018/1/22/life-after-14-years-in-prison-maintaining-innocence

The Guardian published a letter drafted by us and signed by more than 50 partners, asking for an end to the imprisonment of vulnerable people for council tax non-payment: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/mar/26/taking-action-for-those-jailed-over-unpaid-council-tax

A woman we supported gave a brave interview on Woman’s Hour about her experience of being wrongfully imprisoned for not having paid her council tax:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09y6zbr

“System Behaviours” the work is speaking to

Our work is most connected to the idea of perspective and participation at the moment. We have been able to work most successfully on women’s cases when we have been able to work in partnership. For example on one case, the woman we are representing is having her mental health needs assessed by Women in Prison, has parole representation from the Prisoner’s Advice Service and we are handling her appeal. She has holistic support and I feel this is the most powerful way of working for change.

We have been working hard to find opportunities for the people we represent to tell their stories on a wider platform. We are working with one women in prison at the moment to turn her life story into a series of illustrated chapters to share with the world, and with another client to record a podcast of her experiences. Women are the best advocates for reform that directly affects their lives. I want to do everything in my power to enable that.

Tensions 

We are finding that women are often reluctant to appeal short sentences, as they are afraid of being penalised for it and having their sentences extended. We know that women also make fewer complaints while in prison, so wonder if this is an area of gender bias, where women are reluctant to appeal as they don’t want to ‘kick up a fuss’. We are looking at ways of increasing women’s confidence in navigating the confusing appeals system.

The appeals process sis a long and gruelling one, where results can be slow. Keeping up clients’ morale while navigating this can be difficult.

We find the Court of Appeal to be very conservative, and lacking in diversity of judges (as of 2017, only 24% of judges on the Court of Appeal were women and only 7% are BAME). Winning in such an unrepresentative court can be challenging.

The current legal aid environment and restrictive funding cuts to the criminal justice system means we sometimes find it very difficult to cover the costs of things like experts reports, often crucial to reopening a case.