More prisoners say defence lawyers erred

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The Independent Online
A BIG rise in the number of prisoners claiming to be victims of a miscarriage of justice will be revealed in a report this week. Almost half of them say they were convicted because of mistakes by defence lawyers, according to Justice, which compiled the report.

Justice, the British Section of the International Commission of Jurists, was asked to investigate 847 cases last year, a 33 per cent rise over the previous 12 months. Most of the cases involved claims of wrongful conviction.

Legal reform groups will use the statistics to press for changes in the way cases are investigated and prosecuted. Reformers say that they are also concerned about the standard of defence lawyers.

Justice's legal officer, Ailsa Thomson, said she estimated that in about 40 per cent of the cases, prisoners protesting innocence blamed their advisers. They said solicitors had failed to look for witnesses or other evidence helpful to their case, and often briefed barristers inadequately.

'I think there is a problem in the way cases are approached,' Ms Thomson said. Solicitors relied on attacking the prosecution case, and did little investigative work other than to 'try to establish an alibi'.

These concerns have been raised in relation to some of the high-profile miscarriages of justice that have shaken confidence in the legal system. The solicitors who advised the Birmingham Six in 1975, for instance, have been strongly criticised.

There are worries too about less well-known cases. In one, studied by Justice, a man was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for a rape he said he did not commit. Claiming that the victim had a grudge against him, he said the semen sample provided by the prosecution did not come from the attack but had been stolen from a hospital where he had gone for fertility checks. The woman was employed at the hospital.

According to Justice, it was important to analyse the purity of the sample, which would have been contaminated with blood if it had been collected after the rape. This was never done.

Ms Thomson was supported by the National Association of Probation Officers, which studied last week 40 cases that it said gave grounds for concern. Of these, 14 contain criticisms of defence solicitors and barristers. Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, said changes in the law were needed so that defendants could appeal on the grounds that their lawyers made errors at the trial. At present, no such arguments can be presented to the Court of Appeal.

His comments follow the publication in draft form of a four- year study of 50 solicitors' practices by Mike McConville, Professor of Law at the University of Warwick. He found a 'large proportion' of legal practices provided a sub-standard service. Instead of challenging prosecution arguments, they tended to 'process' guilty pleas. 'Effectively, they are assembly lines,' he said. 'This kind of defence trusts in an own goal by the prosecution.

'One can look at the high-profile miscarriage-of-justice cases that have occurred. If it was so obvious that there was a defect present at the outset, it ought to have been apparent to the defence.'

Professor McConville was particularly critical of the use of unqualified clerks. He told a conference on Friday that 75 per cent of suspects who requested a solicitor at police stations were seen by untrained staff. 'We saw little evidence of anything which might reasonably be called informed or guided delegation.'