Victims of judicial miscarriages given aid to rejoin society

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The Independent Online

The Government will announce today the establishment of a new support service for the scores of victims of miscarriages of justice, acknowledging that such people are often bereft of state help.

The Home Office is likely to reveal that a specialist unit will be based at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the scene of many triumphant acquittals at the Court of Appeal.

Staff at the new unit, publicly funded but run by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB), will advise freed prisoners on how to find a place to live and gain access to work or state benefits.

The development follows a succession of cases where high-profile victims of miscarriages have ended up destitute. Because they have been cleared of their offences they are not entitled to the probation service support given to other released prisoners.

A Home Office working group that has been studying the problem for nearly two years has found that about 20 victims of such miscarriages are being freed each year. About 80 per cent of convictions referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission are overturned.

Michael Hickey – who wrongly served 18 years for the 1978 murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater – says that he stole a ring from a jewellery shop four months after being freed to highlight his predicament. "I did it to say I've been given no money, nowhere to live. What am I supposed to do?" he told a court.

The victims of miscarriages of justice are often unable to find work because employers are distrustful, some cannot sign on with a doctor because they lack papers, and many have profound psychological problems after years prison.

Gerry Conlon, one of the men wrongly convicted of the Guildford pub bombings of 1974, was found to have irreversible post-traumatic stress syndrome after his release.

Paddy Hill, who served 16 years as one of the falsely convicted Birmingham Six, was incensed by the lack of support he received after release and set up the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (Mojo) to campaign for others. In its literature, Mojo says: "Innocent people are being dumped out of the court of appeal like sacks of garbage, all suffering from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome, without counselling or any psychological help."

Mr Hill has highlighted cases including that of Paddy Nicholls, who was released from prison aged 70 after being wrongly convicted of the murder of a friend and having served 23 years. Barely able to walk because of a stroke and with nowhere to live, he went to live with Mr Hill.

The decision to set up a new unit is a victory for the Chris Mullin, the chairman of the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee who campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six and who has raised the issue of the lack of support for wrongly convicted prisoners.

NACAB has offered to provide support for the unit, including help with benefit claims and budgeting needs. The office at the Royal Courts of Justice would liaise with citizens advice bureaux around the country. Assistance would be offered as soon as a case was referred to the Court of Appeal.