Student lawyers help jailed man prove he was not guilty of raid on post office

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The Independent Online

A man who spent six years behind bars for a robbery he did not commit has had his conviction quashed after a group of law students took his case to the Court of Appeal.

Eight undergraduates at the University of Northumbria investigated Alex Allan's claim that he had been wrongly convicted as part of their studies. Yesterday they found out they had cleared his name after three judges ruled that Mr Allan had indeed been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

After the decision Mr Allan, who always denied taking part in the raid on a post office van in 1990, praised the students for bringing the case to the attention of the courts. He said: "There's no way I could have done this without the help of the students at the university, including those who have worked on the case in previous years."

The students' success is made more remarkable by the fact that Mr Allan lost a previous appeal in 1994, when he was represented by a human rights organisation.

Mr Allan first contacted the university in 1997, soon after his release from prison, when he saw a university advertisement offering people free legal advice. For the past four years, two final-year law students at the university in Newcastle have each spent a year working on the appeal.

Mr Allan was sentenced to eight years in prison after a trial at Newcastle Crown Court, during which the prosecution relied on an alleged confession he made to police.

After being granted legal aid to pursue the appeal, the students and Kevin Kerrigan, a solicitor who lectures at the university's law school, made an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which then referred the case to the Court of Appeal. Despite having legal aid only for junior counsel, the case was taken on by Edward Fitzgerald QC, a leading London criminal barrister, for junior rates because of the involvement of students.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal judges accepted that "there is a clear question mark of the reliability of the appellant's admission". The court also found that the robbery victim's description was almost completely at odds with Mr Allan's appearance.

Mr Allan, now in his 40s and working as a welder in Southampton, said after the hearing: "I can't believe it. It hasn't sunk in yet. It's 11 years out of my life and I'm just so relieved it's all over." He added: "I owe everything to a group of students who believed in me when others didn't and refused to allow a terrible miscarriage of justice go unnoticed."

Mr Kerrigan described the university's Student Law Office as a "radical approach" to legal training, which teaches students "real law and allows them to help real people". But he added: "We take cases on if they have an educational value to students."

The robbery took place in March 1990, when a post office van was held up outside a post office in Dudley, North Tyneside. One man smashed the van's front window, another tried to grab a bag from the back, and a fight broke out in which the postmaster was injured. The men escaped with two bags in a getaway car and went to a house in Burradon, North Tyneside.

Shortly afterwards, Alex Allan found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He turned up at the house, owned by a friend, to find two men sorting through two bags of mail, and he walked through to the kitchen to keep out of their way. Just after he arrived, the door burst open and police officers charged in.

He was thrown to the floor before being taken away and charged with robbery and attacking the postmaster. As he awaited trial, he discovered police claimed to have asked him who had hit the postman, to which he allegedly replied: "I only hit him once."

Susan Hirst, one of the students working on the case in its final year, said: "I feel as though we have made a huge contribution to finally getting justice for Mr Allan, and learnt a huge amount about the legal system along the way."

Mr Allan is not planning to sue over his imprisonment, but he will apply to the Home Office for compensation for his years behind bars.