After six years in prison, Alex Allan felt that he had nowhere left to turn. Wrongfully convicted of robbery, he had been repeatedly passed over for parole. Finally free, his legal aid was exhausted and he had already lost one appeal. Despairing of ever getting justice, he turned to law students for help.
It sounds like the storyline from the doomed television drama The Innocence Project, dropped at the beginning of the month by the BBC after viewing figures plummeted. In the show, a charismatic professor brings together a gang of ambitious students to overturn wrongful convictions. With a dazzling turnover of a case a week, and a cast who would seem more at home making an appeal to Simon Cowell than to a court, it was short on credibility.
Allan's story, however, is true. In 1997, he approached Northumbria University's Student Law Office. In 2001, he had his conviction overturned. In 2003, he was awarded nearly £170,000 in compensation by the Home Office.
It is all rather jazzier than the common image of law students - grey faces peaking over stacks of case books in the library, cramming up on obscure points of Roman law. At the moment, only a few students are lucky enough to get their hands on such pro bono work, but while the television show has bombed, real life Innocence Projects are proving a hit on campuses.
Until Allan turned up on their doorstep with a stack of box files, Northumbria University's Student Law Office had, like most university law departments, only dealt with civil disputes, representing people whose cases did not qualify for legal aid but who could not afford a solicitor. They now represent 20 criminal-law clients whose convictions students are looking to overturn.
The biggest issue on which students are now working, concerning several clients, says Kevin Kerrigan, the supervising solicitor at the Student Law Office, is DNA testing. Until 1999, courts used a six-point test that is now discredited. "On the Government's figures, up to 26 per cent of DNA matches under the old test are unreliable," says Kerrigan. "The Home Office calls them 'adventitious'; what they mean is that they were chance matches."
A serious concern, of course, but shouldn't students learn the law before trying to practise it? "Students who pursue only the academic route do miss out on real-world experience and understanding," says Kerrigan.
Northumbria does the LLB Exempting degree, a four-year course covering professional training as well as academic law. But even universities with a more traditional academic focus are now offering students a chance to take a fresh look at criminal cases through Innocence Projects. The name comes from the US, where the first Innocence Project was set up at the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. Since then, students have overturned 187 convictions. From there the idea soon spread across the States and Australia.
In the last couple of years, it has been taken up by British universities, and there are now over a dozen projects up and running or in the pipeline. Students go through the case files, trying to find anything that solicitors may have overlooked: taking a fresh look at witness statements, procedure, fingerprint and forensic evidence, or any ways to break down circumstantial evidence. In one case being handled at Cardiff, that means analysis of computer records.
Carol McCartney runs the Innocence Project at Leeds University. It was set up last autumn, and has 20 students working on four cases: two murders, a kidnap, and a kidnap and torture. "Law can be quite a dull subject," says Dr McCartney, a law tutor at Leeds. "This helps students to feel more enthusiasm fore it. It enhances their study, and they say that they learn so much that they can bring back to their course."
Rebecca Young, 20, is one of Dr McCartney's volunteers, working on the kidnap and torture case. It is a significant commitment - she spends around 16 hours a week on her case. "In the course, you learn what the laws are," she says. "But this is real. It's totally different. You're looking for something others have missed, which is exciting. And you do feel you're doing something worthwhile."
The first Innocence Project in the UK was set up at Bristol in January last year by Dr Michael Naughton, founder and co-ordinator of the Innocence Network UK, which is growing fast, with 250 people from 14 universities attending its training event in October.
There is certainly a need for it. Dr Naughton says that there are around 5,000 prison inmates who maintain their innocence. And even when there is nothing that the students can do, he believes that the cases offer an opportunity to teach students about the broader injustices of legal procedure and inspire them to correct them. "It leads to a rigorous academic critique of the system," says Dr Naughton. He points to Ludovic Kennedy's 10 Rillington Place, the book that, by demonstrating the innocence of Timothy Evans, executed for murdering his wife and child, led to the abolition of the death penalty in the UK.
Recently, he has had to turn down the case of two men convicted for killing a woman on "prison grass" evidence. The murder weapon was found with the woman's DNA and someone else's on it. Neither men matched the DNA, but because their defence team persuaded the men not to use the evidence, it cannot be used at appeal. "You learn more about the system when you see it going wrong than reading about how it should be," he says.
However, some legal academics believe that Innocence Projects can do more harm than good. Dr Hannah Quirk, a law lecturer at Manchester University, has researched Innocence Projects in the US and the UK, and she worries that students could delay appeals and contaminate evidence if they are not properly supervised. More fundamentally, she is concerned about students making judgments on guilt and innocence. "If we're training students to be lawyers, we shouldn't be looking at innocence," she says. "They need to realise that they can't always work for cases that they find sympathetic."
And the older academic, non-clinical system has its supporters. "A lot of people I've spoken to say that they don't want an Innocence Project," says Jade Fearns, president of Cambridge University Law Society. "We're here to get a really good understanding of ancient legal principles."
Professor David Feldman, chairman of the Faculty Board of Law at Cambridge, defends the pure academic study of law, too. "In terms of my practical understanding of the law and my career, the two most useful courses I did were Roman law and jurisprudence," he says of two notoriously highbrow courses in the law degree. "I don't agree with the idea that miscarriage of justice work is more valuable."
However, he is not against Innocence Projects: "They do give students a chance to develop their sense of social responsibility. If students come up with a plan, the faculty will look at it."
When a faculty that still teaches Roman law in Latin is considering embracing Innocence Projects, you know they are here to stay. Which is more than could be said for the TV show.
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