The work of the Manchester Innocence Project (MIP) is paving the way to freedom for victims of a miscarriage of justice. We meet the inspirational teaching team putting University of Manchester students at the heart of the cause.
A new innocence project is born
When Professor of Law, Claire McGourlay, came to Manchester in 2017, setting up an Innocence Project quickly became a priority. Her remit was to examine the School of Law’s clinical legal education offering and on review, she found no criminal appeal pro-bono initiative existed. She herself had been involved in miscarriages of justice work since her involvement in the ‘Cardiff Newsagent Three’ case as a student – which saw a 20-year-old trainee painter and decorator wrongly imprisoned for murder for 11 years.
Fintan Walker, a Lecturer in Clinical Legal Education, joined the project soon after, bringing with him a wealth of criminal practitioner expertise, along with PhD student Suzanne Gower – a criminal lawyer of 15 years who teaches about miscarriages of justice.
The project found its name when it became part of the Innocence Project family, an initiative established in the US in 1992. Today, the MIP is one of more than 60 Innocence Projects, with only a dozen found outside the US.
I think that everything we do, and everything we personally stand for as members of staff, comes from the work we do with the students.
A passion for righting wrongs
Many former legal practitioners find themselves returning to innocence work, says McGourlay, and it’s this passion the students find for the work when they get involved.
“The work has a massive impact on the way that students behave, think, and progress in their careers.”
One such practitioner is Nicola Campbell, one of McGourlay’s past students, who cameto Manchester to study for her PhD after working for the Crown Prosecution Service. The pull to work on wrongful convictions was strong and now she makes up one of the teaching team leading the project.
Making a difference through teaching and learning
MIP sits within the Justice Hub, a collection of law projects making a real impact within the Manchester community. Teaching and learning is its bedrock as students lead the work on these cases, including sifting through piles of paperwork and contacting experts to review evidence (and getting them to do it for free). Or as McGourlay puts it, “finding the needle in a haystack.”
Despite being in its infancy, the project is already being recognised for embodying the University’s core goals, from its commitment to social responsibility to driving research and discovery. In its first year, it received a Making a Difference Award for best project and McGourlay credits the win to the work of the students: “I think that everything we do, and everything we personally stand for as members of staff, comes from the work we do with the students.”
Taking MIP to the next level
There will never be a shortage of innocence work to take on and the COVID-19 pandemic has created even more of a challenge. Criminal practitioners, says McGourlay, are predicting the post-pandemic period will see an increase in wrongful convictions, so innocence work will be needed more than ever – a challenging prospect for the team.
“The big difference between the US and us is they get millions of dollars in donations,” McGourlay reveals, specifically referring to a Californian project with its eight full-time, non-teaching lawyers dedicated to the work.
The Manchester Innocence Project is, however, raising its profile, thanks to accompanying podcast, The Innocence Podcast, presented by ITV Newsreader Kylie Pentelow. As well as amplifying miscarriages of justice work in general, McGourlay hopes the podcast will attract more students to the cause, allowing MIP to take on more cases, which for many people is their last chance of freedom from imprisonment.