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The Landscape of Criminal Appeals: 2015 and Beyond

Charlotte Rowles, investigative journalist

By Charlotte Rowles, investigative journalist on 20/11/15

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The Landscape of Criminal Appeals: 2015 and Beyond
Giving the introduction, Elizabeth Smart, Sheffield’s Principal Lecturer in Law welcomed the audience saying “I’m delighted to see students from Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, Lancaster, Oxford and stakeholders like Inside Justice.”
Delivering the keynote speech, Sophie Walker, director of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, discussed their current cases, collaborations with university criminal appeals projects and observed how the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is dealing with one of the Commission’s most high-profile cases, that of the footballer Ched Evans. 
Evans, 26, was released from prison last year after serving half of a five-year sentence for the rape of a 19-year-old woman at a hotel in Rhyl in April 2012.
The former Sheffield United and Wales striker’s case represents the most testing issue for the CCRC.  
Comparing approaches between America and the UK,” Sophie commented, “Most (US) trial legal teams include an investigator. The lack of an investigator is particularly problematic at the appeals stage: fresh evidence is not (usually) found in the case papers.”
Evans’ new legal team, David Emanuel from Garden Court Chambers, employed a former senior investigating police officer to look at aspects of his appeal which led to the discovery of tweets written by Evans’ victim.  The content of the tweet contained references to a ‘win big’ and ‘treating friends to an amazing holiday’.  Though the tweets were later deleted, it seems they were found on the French Twitter server by a fire-fighter based in New York. This evidence forms part of Evans’ appeal. 
The importance of new investigations was a strong message coming through in the keynote speech.  The guidance to students was clear for fresh evidence in an appeal.  But Sophie Walker noted “Legal aid pays £21 an hour for travel: there is a financial incentive for lawyers to stay at their desks.”
In the afternoon the conference heard from Mark Newby, a senior solicitor with Jordans, who has been successful in challenging a number of historic sex abuse cases.  
In his speech, the veteran lawyer looked at the many problems faced by people working in this area.  
“I have described the situation we find ourselves in now as the gravest we have ever faced.”  
In addition, he noted the significance the funding cuts are having in all areas of the criminal justice landscape.
The lawyer had advice for the audience on how to turn their passion into successful criminal appeals:  “Identify the cases in which we can help and how we then harness enthusiasm to deliver real outcomes for our applicants”.
In the 5 years since it has been in operation, Inside Justice has been asked to investigate nearly a thousand cases of alleged wrongful convictions, and is seeing an increase in the number of offenders applying who have been convicted of historic sex offences.  Although a notoriously difficult area of appeals, Jordans’ legal team have notched up 3 acquittals in North Wales care home convictions.   
A care worker by the name of Anver Sheikh had been convicted of sexual offences whilst working in a children’s home in 1980. The lawyer’s approach was to take a proactive investigative stance: asking why Anver was convicted and what was missing from the case. Mark wanted to understand why other prosecutions against workers at the care home failed. “What was so different about the case of Anver Sheikh? Why did this man get convicted when every other accused in the (police) operation did not?”
He found evidence from a number of sources. Unusually, a former resident came forward who claimed to have been part of a ring of complainants who made up false allegations for compensation. 
Mark told the audience that “The [teacher] support group remembered that Anver Sheikh was only employed at the school for about a year”.   
School documents showed that, in September 1979, Mr Sheikh had been appointed but a year later he was no longer employed at the school.
Records of pupil school attendance showed that one complainant arrived on 1 August 1980 and that he had left the school in 1982.
The solicitor was excited at this development, commenting that “this meant that if we could show Sheikh had left by the time the complainant had started we would prove this to be a false allegation”.
After much work, The Jordans’ team achieved justice for Anver Sheik. “This conviction was quashed… highlighting the dangers of miscarriage in care home enquiries”.
The conference speakers had pulled off an impressive feat: acknowledging the very real difficulties faced by those of us working to overcome miscarriages of justice but still managing to inspire the audience to rise to the challenge.  
The audience reaction was positive with aspiring barrister, Georgia-Rose Bjister tweeting: “Brilliant conference today #clac15 well done and thank you for a very informative conference!”