Our partner recruitment site Simply Law recently caught up with Carys Bishop, a final year Law student at Cardiff University who is currently a Team Leader on the Cardiff University Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project is a Pro Bono programme that works to help those who claim to have been wrongly convicted of a crime. I became interested in the Innocence Project even before coming to Cardiff University after I was introduced to the Project during a University open day.
At the time, the Project had successfully overturned the conviction of Dwaine George, and have since overturned the conviction of Gareth Jones, which is an incredible achievement.
My time with the Cardiff University Innocence Project began in my second year of studies when I decided to apply to join the Project as part of my Pro Bono experience. I was thrilled to hear that I had been accepted onto the Project and I soon began working within a fantastic team of students.
Unfortunately, my first year with the Project was cut short due to Covid-19, however, I was determined to take on a more active role in the Project for my final year of University. I applied to become a Team Leader and I was delighted to have been accepted.
My role at the Project is to lead a small team of fellow students to review the safety of our clients’ convictions. Some of our tasks include investigating the case to highlight any discrepancies, researching current case law on any relevant issues and liaising with professionals and experts in the relevant fields.
My role specifically as a Team Leader is to organise team meetings, assign tasks to my team members and review my team’s findings. We review every document provided to us with great attention to detail to find any issues that the defence counsel or the prosecution had missed which can be a long process.
After conducting the investigation, we look for possible points of appeal and seek a first appeal, or if our client has already lost a first appeal, we submit an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Cuts to legal aid funding mean that we have to rely on lawyers to work pro bono to support first applications for leave to appeal. Additionally, due to the restrictive nature of the appeals system, it is not always possible for our clients to appeal their conviction.
In fact, the biggest challenge faced by the Innocence Project is the Criminal Justice and appeals system. Before joining the Project, I was not aware of how many of our clients have been convicted on what would be considered as weak evidence, whether that be due to inadequate defence or a lack of understanding of the Criminal Justice system.
Convictions based on weak evidence make cases difficult to appeal due to the rigidity of the appeals system. There are strict restrictions on admitting fresh evidence and appealing based on inadequate defence, which means that many are left without any option but to serve a sentence for a crime that they claim to have been wrongly convicted of.
This is incredibly frustrating for the organisation and our clients as we identify many issues with our clients’ convictions, yet we are often unable to appeal
Future reforms should address the level of evidence that is required before someone is convicted, and should allow people who claim to have been wrongly convicted of a crime to have a fair chance at appealing their conviction, otherwise there is a risk that wrongful convictions will go uncorrected.
Being a part of the Innocence Project is challenging when having to deal with the current system, however, it is so rewarding knowing that your work is appreciated by your clients and you are helping to make a difference. My advice for anyone wanting to work within an Innocence Project is to do it!
“It is a fantastic opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the Criminal Justice System and its flaws.”
I have fortunately obtained an offer to study the Legal Practice Course LLM for the next academic year at Cardiff University, and I intend to remain working with the Project and continue the work that we do.
Working on the Innocence Project would not be possible without the work of my team this year, for which I am grateful. However, the Project would not be possible without the remarkable leadership of Dr Dennis Eady and Dr Holly Greenwood.