Imagine serving a lengthy prison sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. Then envision what it would feel like, if after years of struggle and appeals, to finally have your conviction quashed because you are innocent. Only to find you are left alone to fend for yourself on release. Ironically, the support available from the likes of probation and resettlement services is reserved for those that are guilty; victims of miscarriages of justice do not benefit. A second injustice, and that is after the State has said they got it wrong.
Every year, our legal system, like any other, will make mistakes and people are wrongfully convicted of a crime and imprisoned. For most there is an immediate opportunity to appeal, which results in mistakes being rectified quickly – unfortunate for individuals but proof perhaps that our courts and appeals system works overall.
However for some, dozens in any year, it doesn’t work. This small but ignored minority then start the lengthy process of appealing their unfair conviction, whilst spending years in prison for something they did not do. First, having to convince the Criminal Case Review Commission – which reviews individual cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – who in turn may then pass the cases through to the High Court to be considered again. But even if this lengthy and tortuous process is successful, that is not the end of the injustice.
Homeless when released
The groundbreaking Libra project was set up to help these mistreated individuals, specifically those left homeless as a result of being a miscarriage of justice victim, whose lives have been turned upside down. Libra is a two stage, accommodation and support programme. The scheme is a partnership between Commonweal Housing and a small two person team at the Miscarriage of Justice Support Service, based at the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau – part of the Citizens Advice Bureau network, the only state funded support for victims of miscarriages of justice.
Unfortunately, because of recent changes to government compensation policy; as well as internal challenges, things did not quite go to plan for Libra. At Commonweal we describe our work as action-learning, which means we develop innovative, pilot projects, learn from and then share learnings. So I realise that we shouldn’t be surprised when things don’t necessarily go as planned but they still sometimes manage to take us by surprise, and left wondering “what happened ?”
Victims of Miscarriages of Justice
Understandably, the prison experience is often worse for those who are not guilty. They are often not able to access courses and support inside because admitting to guilt is a prerequisite for accessing many of these, and of course, this is something miscarriage of justice victims cannot and will not do.
On release, although wronged individuals may well have achieved their dream of freedom, their lives have too often been irrevocably changed; and far too many are left with nothing. Such a scandalous lack of formal support structures or services was the social injustice that attracted Commonweal to this group in the first place.
Practical housing support
So what does Libra offer – firstly, we provide immediate, emergency housing for those at a point of crisis, either on the day of release by the Appeal Courts, or later when all too often the family life they return to breaks down. This short-term housing is normally provided for around six months. At this stage, we work with the individuals to help them choose where they might want to live longer term, and assist them to find and obtain a suitable home, which would be rented to them initially. The MJSS would in the meantime identify lawyers and others who could support individuals pursue a claim for compensation. The ultimate intention being that when compensation was awarded, the individuals could buy the property off Commonweal, enabling our charitable resources to be recycled to help others.
What went wrong?
Although this all sounds great, just one year in we are scaling back – why?
What went wrong for Libra? It was a mix of internal factors, exasperated by government policy change. As part of our open and honest action-learning approach, we are able to admit that Libra was over-engineered and had too few clients – which on one hand is of course a good thing. There were also perceived differences in roles and responsibilities for Commonweal and our project partner, all lessons learnt for future projects.
Externally – the full implications of the bedroom tax impacted on the project design. Added to that – a pernicious change in legislation from the Government which seeks to limit the number of miscarriages of justice victims eligible for compensation.
In March, The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was accepted into law. As part of this, a change was made that means compensation payments will be limited to only those individuals the Courts deem to be clearly innocent and who are expressly described as such. This is something courts simply do not do because unless you are proven guilty, in the eyes of the law you are therefore innocent, it doesn’t and shouldn’t need saying beyond that. It seems this Government has adopted the principle of no smoke without fire – a very dangerous precedent for all concerned.
The likely loss of the compensation award and resulting possibility of an onward sale of their rented home to the individuals supported by Libra, has effectively killed off Commonweal’s much needed project.
However, the issue and social injustice of the way we as a country continue to mistreat victims of miscarriages of justice remains. Commonweal will still talk about this issue as it remains a scandal, with the rewriting of the fundamentals of British justice being sneaked in to legislation unworthy of this or any Government. Some victims of miscarriages of justice certainly do face homelessness, so Commonweal will continue to lobby to ensure that the homelessness regulations and guidance, and those local authorities that have to implement it, recognise the trauma and the exceptional circumstances that such wrongful incarceration creates for these people.