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For any seasoned criminal lawyer, the overturning and quashing of a client’s murder conviction by the UK’s Court of Appeal would be a big victory.
But what makes one case, that of Dwaine George, more unusual is that much of the work was done by Cardiff University students through the Cardiff Law School Innocence Project and Pro Bono Unit.
The Innocence Project allows students who want to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice to work on cases of long-term prisoners who maintain their innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted. The innocence project movement started in the US but came to the UK about a decade ago.
The Dwaine George case was significant because Cardiff was the first university innocence project in the UK to secure a conviction’s overturning by the Court of Appeal.
A report by LawWorks, a charity that connects volunteer lawyers with people who need legal advice, found that at least 70 per cent of law schools in the UK are involved in pro bono projects and 45 per cent of clinics in the LawWorks network involve a law school. Such projects help students gain experience under close supervision by solicitors.
Cardiff became involved in the Dwaine George case in 2006 and submitted his case in 2010, along with six others, to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Mr George was convicted in 2002 of murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm for the killing of Daniel Dale in Manchester in 2001. He was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison. He had always maintained he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Mr George’s appeal was based on scientific re-evaluation of the significance of gunshot residue, and new guidelines that cast doubt on the use of small particles of gunshot residue as evidence.
Last December, the Court of Appeal quashed Mr George’s conviction as it was no longer safe. Sir Brian Leveson, the lead Court of Appeal judge, praised the work of Cardiff’s Pro Bono Unit and the Innocence Project, which, he said, “took up the appellant’s case and pursued it so diligently”.
Professor Julie Price, director of the Cardiff Law School Innocence Project and head of its pro bono unit, says she and the students put thousands of hours into the nine years they worked on the case.
The Innocence Project at Cardiff has submitted 20 substantive submissions in 12 different cases and now receives five or six letters a week from convicted prisoners wanting it to take up their cases.
“It’s a huge effort and it’s often the last chance for these people,” Prof Price says. She adds that by getting involved “law students learn for themselves . . . and get a far deeper understanding of society rather than just law”.
She says that some students might initially be attracted to work on such cases so that they can put the experience on their CV, “but then they really get into it and we end up with a small group of students who are with us forever”.
About 30 Cardiff students, past and present, attended Mr George’s Court of Appeal hearing and some have since qualified as solicitors.
“In the George case, some students went on to become lawyers and still took an interest after they left,” Prof Price says, adding that one of the students is now doing a PhD on miscarriages of justice.
Nor are Cardiff students the only ones making the headlines for their work on real legal cases.
Last year, Kent Law Clinic, a pro bono service provided by students at the University of Kent, was recognised for its work in helping to secure asylum in the UK for an Afghan refugee.
The case was submitted to the Home Office under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the grounds that if the client returned to Afghanistan he would face persecution.
Students at Kent Law Clinic provided free legal support. They are supervised by qualified practising lawyers from the University of Kent’s law school with help from local lawyers.
Claire Splawn, then a second-year law student, prepared the case under the supervision of clinic solicitor Sheona York.
At a time when legal aid services have been cut back by the UK government, volunteering by law students — and law schools’ support for pro bono services — can make a vital difference to communities and to justice. At they same time, they provide valuable experience for the lawyers of the future.
Prison: Jail term brings meetings of minds
One Spanish law school has set up an unusual philosophy course that brings together law students and prisoners.
The course, Philosophy Behind Bars, has been organised by Esade Law School in co-operation with the Catalan department of justice at Lledoners prison near Barcelona.
Professor Sira Abenoza leads the school’s philosophy course, on which seven law students and seven inmates meet for weekly sessions over a term to think and reflect. The aim of the course is to bridge the gap between future criminal lawyers and the kind of people they will represent.
Sessions are based on the practice of the Socratic method of discussion between individuals to explore philosophical concepts such as truth and fear.
Some universities, notably in the US, have set up encounters between law students and inmates — for debating contests, for example — but these have tended to be limited, one-day events.
The Esade course is unusual in that the student-inmate meetings are for an entire term and are to discuss philosophical and moral ideas.
“Most law students have never been into a jail,” Prof Abenoza says. “It helps make students better lawyers.”
She likens the meetings to the training doctors undergo. “A doctor does not end his education in medicine without going into the operating theatre,” she says.
Students write diaries during the course and the inmates are encouraged to do so, too.
A benefit of the sessions for the inmates, says Prof Abenoza, is that many are given hope that they can reintegrate into society after they are released.
“Inmates say that spending an afternoon with university students makes them feel as if they are out of jail — the main reason is that they don’t feel judged,” she says.