England: Unreliable witness testimony biggest cause of miscarriages of justice over past 50 years



Dr Rebecca Helm

Unreliable witness testimony has been the biggest cause of miscarriages of justice over the past half-century, a new study suggests.

The research also suggests that regulations governing the powers of police have been effective in reducing wrongful convictions caused by unreliable confessions.

Dr Rebecca Helm, from the University of Exeter Law School, led the analysis of more than 250 miscarriages of justice that have occurred in England & Wales over the last 50 years. This research has led to a new publicly available database of over 350 convictions overturned due to factual error in England and Wales and elsewhere in the UK, from 1970 to 2016.

The study identified four key contributors to factual error miscarriages of justice in England and Wales – unreliable witness testimony, false or unreliable confessions, inadequate disclosure, and false or misleading forensic science. One hundred and seven (41 per cent) of the cases identified involved unreliable witness testimony

A total 69 (26 per cent) of the cases involved a false or unreliable confession, 55 (21 per cent) of the cases involved false or misleading forensic science and 47 (18 per cent) of the cases involved inadequate disclosure.

  • 42 percent of the cases involved a charge of murder.
  • 11 percent involved manslaughter or assault
  • 22 per cent involved sex offences
  • four per cent involved drugs offences
  • 19 per cent involved robbery or burglary
  • 13 per cent involved another offence.

Of the cases involving a false or unreliable confession; 68 per cent involved murder convictions; 14 per cent involved a manslaughter or assault conviction; six per cent involved a sexual offences conviction; 17 per cent involved a robbery or burglary conviction and one per cent involved a drug offence conviction. Almost all of these cases happened prior to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the disbandment of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, and almost all successful appeals based on unreliable confessions occurred after these two events.

Of cases involving false or misleading forensic science, 49 per cent involved murder convictions, 16 per cent involved a manslaughter or assault conviction, 11 per cent involved a sexual offences conviction and 6 per cent involved a robbery or burglary conviction.

Of cases involving inadequate disclosure 64 per cent involved murder convictions, two per cent involved a manslaughter or assault conviction, 15 per cent involved a sexual offences conviction, 11 per cent involved a robbery or burglary conviction, 8 per cent involved a drug offence conviction, and six per cent involved another type of conviction.

Cases analysed in the study were identified via media searches, communications with organisations involved in miscarriage of justice-focused work, searches of legal databases, and searches of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) case library. Cases could only be included in the analysis where they were reported with sufficient information to allow inclusion, and so most cases involve relatively serious offences which are more likely to be reported.

In the cases analysed in the research there was, on average, approximately 10 years between the initial conviction in a case and the successful appeal and appellants had spent approximately seven years in prison prior to their conviction being quashed. As a group, successful appellants spent approximately 1,832 years in prison before their convictions were quashed.

Dr Helm said: “The data show that miscarriages of justice are persisting despite changes in legal regulation and are still a cause for concern in England and Wales. Studying the miscarriages of justice that have occurred provides us with the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and see where the criminal justice system is going wrong in evaluating evidence.”



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