A vital lesson in the meaning of law and justice
As a rule, successful applicants to the Court of Appeal need to thank their legal teams and, sometimes, campaigners. Earlier this month, however, when Alex Allan’s conviction for robbery was quashed, special thanks were due to Kevin Kerrigan, a law lecturer, and his students at the University of Northumbria.
A law office, offering a legal service to students only, had been in existence since 1980 at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic. However, in 1991 the rules for solicitors employed outside the legal profession (such as university lecturers) were amended, allowing them to practise on behalf of members of the public. This enabled the law office to open for business to allcomers, the first university law department to do so. The aim was both to offer a fully professional service and to provide invaluable casework experience for students.
The “live client” programme is a compulsory part of the fourth-year law degree course. In the 2000 to 2001 academic year, 120 students worked on real-life cases, taking responsibility for their own cases under the supervision of a qualified solicitor. One of these solicitors was Kerrigan, who became a full-time academic in 1990 and has combined this since 1996 with his work as a solicitor, specialising in criminal and human rights work.
Because the law centre is funded by the university for the benefit of its students, its costs were no drain on the legal system. Moreover, those fighting perceived injustice almost always fail at the first hurdle — they cannot afford to pay anyone to look at their papers to assess whether, in law, their case is a good one. By giving free advice, the law centre helps them over that critical first hurdle.
Alex Allan had been protesting his innocence since 1991, when he was given an eight-year sentence for robbery. But he had felt let down by lawyers at every turn. However, after his release in October 1996, he determined to pursue his case. “I was a bit cynical about solicitors by then,” he says, “but Liberty suggested I try the Student Law Office at Northumbria University.”
The case concerned the robbery of a post office van by three men. Since none of the eyewitness descriptions of the robbers fitted Allan, the prosecution case was founded on an admission he was alleged to have made to police at the time of his arrest.
Kerrigan read through the case papers and, even though the law centre had not been involved with a similar case before, decided to take it up. He noticed that not only did the circumstances of the alleged admission contravene the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in several respects (when Allan was being interviewed, and had supposedly made the admission, he was horizontal on the floor), but that Allan was never cautioned. The single most damning piece of evidence had not only been unreliable but also inadmissible.
“After a few weeks, I noticed how much work Kevin and the students were doing,” says Allan. “They were turning over every stone. Kevin has worked relentlessly and done more to get my case heard than I could ever have hoped for.”
The students interviewed witnesses and, under Kerrigan’s guidance, prepared a submission for the Criminal Cases Review Commission. They had a meeting in Birmingham with caseworkers, before the case was referred to appeal in 1998.
By then Kerrigan had persuaded Edward Fitzgerald, QC, to take on the case. The Court of Appeal court judges were somewhat nonplussed that a case could have gone through the entire legal process without anyone prior to the Student Law Office having pursued — or even necessarily noticed — the glaring point that Allan had not been cautioned.
However, they accepted Fitzgerald’s argument that it was unnecessary to consider questions of negligence of trial counsel; if the evidence should obviously not have been admitted, he argued, and if it had clearly had a prejudicial effect on the jury, that was sufficient.
Allan was welding in Southampton, doing ship-repair work, when he heard that his appeal had been successful. “I feel I’ve got my life back again,” he said, “but I never dreamt it would take 11 years.”
Because of the protracted legal process, it was impossible for the students originally involved with the case to see it through to its conclusion. Those involved in its final stages were Sue Hirst, 23, and Jennifer Blewett, 22. “It was wonderful to have one of the best barristers in the country acting in a case we’d actually worked on,” says Blewett.
The case has now become the most high-profile success of the Northumbria Student Law Office. Doubtless it can now expect to be inundated with pleas for legal assistance — although it is able to take on only a limited number of cases.
Some observers are now questioning whether this is a useful model for legal education. But it is interesting that there is a very different bias in the legal system in the United States, where law schools not only have a history of raising cases, including complex constitutional issues, but also the time and the expertise to do so successfully.
University of Northumbria School of Law website
Student lawyers help jailed man prove he was not guilty of raid on post office
A man who spent six years behind bars for a robbery he did not commit has had his conviction quashed after a group of law students took his case to the Court of Appeal.
Law students help to quash man’s robbery conviction
A GROUP of law undergraduates have had a man’s conviction for robbery quashed at a second hearing in the Court of Appeal. Alex Allan’s protests of innocence went unheeded by the judiciary while he served six years of an eight-year sentence.