EXCLUSIVE PRE-LAUNCH INTERVIEW WITH LIAM ALLAN
Seven months after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was forced to drop a rape prosecution of Liam Allan, the student who became the reluctant poster boy for the scandalous disclosure failures has launched a campaign on social media to prevent miscarriages of justice.
Backed by MPs including Nigel Evans, the former Commons deputy speaker, who in 2014 was acquitted of charges of rape and sexual assault charges, the campaign seeks to bring together all the disparate groups interested in criminal justice reform and elect a five-strong review panel that will act as a watchdog to monitor the CPS and police, make them accountable for change and provide ideas for reform.
Mr Allan, together with Manchester University professor, Claire McGourlay, who runs the Miscarriages of Justice Review Centre, and second-year Sheffield University law student Annie Brodie Ackers, initially want to increase awareness of the failings of the criminal justice system and the impact on innocent individuals.
Their campaign document detailing their plan of action, published on Twitter last night, said: ‘The aim will be to unite as many people together as possible, and work with the police and Crown Prosecution Service to create a dialogue for change.’
It stressed: ‘For change to happen in the right way, the approach must be respectful to real victims and it must be balanced. This event will approach miscarriages of justice and victims in the broader sense in a way that is fair, respecting victims, complainants and the police.’
The trio opened a crowdfunding page on the JustGiving website to raise £10,000 to support the campaign and conferences ‘to influence change in the Crown Prosecution Service with regards to the way innocents are failed in multiple ways by the Criminal Justice System’.
They said: ‘Many believe that you are only charged, and potentially convicted, of a crime if you are proven guilty, sadly however, this isn’t the case. Many innocents are accused or suspected of a crime that they are not guilty of. For example, a false allegation can happen to anyone, regardless of age, sex, gender, race, religion or background.’
From November to March 2019 they aim to run a series of conferences titled ‘Innovation of Justice’ in Manchester, Sheffield and Cardiff, before hosting a three-day conference in June at the House of Commons in London, to spread the word and collect proposals for reform, before electing the review panel.
That panel will seek two meetings a year with the CPS, police, and justice committee to get progress reports, highlight problems and make recommendations for change.
Commenting on why he is backing the campaign, Mr Evans said: ‘Now is the convenient time to do this, with the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, on her way out and a new DPP coming in. It is not just a case of rearranging the deckchairs, we need a new broom to sweep clear the rot in the current system.
‘I have no doubt that there will be people in the profession who will want to back this because they do not want to see the system rigged in such a way that justice is not being done.’
Mr Evans said that even when judges complain about disclosure failures, nothing is done ‘There is just a shrugging of the shoulders and everything continues without change. There seems to be no shaming of the police or CPS when evidence is withheld and people’s lives absolutely ruined.’
He added: ‘It is not as if Liam’s case was an exception; it seems to be the norm, and that is appalling.
‘We have go to hold their [the police and CPS] feet to the fire and keep them on the straight and narrow – and this is the perfect way of doing it. If we can get people to come together, we can bring about change.’
The campaign has the support of Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice (APPGMJ), and will work closely with it.
It is also backed by Sheffield Heeley MP, Louise Haigh, the universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Greenwich, campaign groups including JENGbA, and law firms including Irwin Mitchell, the Johnson Partnership, Howells, Norrie Waite & Slater, GWB Hartills, Lam & Meerabux and Tuckers Solicitors.
Digby Johnson, senior partner of The Johnson Partnership, one of the country’s largest criminal legal aid practices, said: ‘We work in a number of crown courts and CPS areas around the country – the level and standard of disclosure varies dramatically between areas and prosecutors.
‘A lot of prosecutors see restricting disclosure as a macho badge of honour. If anything can be done to make that badge of honour a stain on their professional character and be held against them, that would be a good thing.’
Mr Johnson added: ‘People ought to regard disclosure as something that can’t be just brushed off. The decisions that a prosecutor makes need to be reasoned and considered. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if there had to be disclosable written record of the reasons why disclosure has not been made’.
In particular, he said disclosure of digital evidence was ‘absolutely vital’ and may be as important to the criminal justice system as fingerprint or DNA evidence has been over the years.
Funding, he said, needed to be made available for proper consideration of this evidence, adding that doing so could save money because proper disclosure could encourage the guilty to plead guilty earlier or prevent others from being prosecuted in the first place.
Mr Allan said: ‘We are not here just to criticise the police and CPS – this not about police-hate or being anti-victim – we are very much aware that rape does happen and victims need to get justice. We are trying find solutions for all of us – for victims of crimes and for those who are wrongly charged or imprisoned — innocent people whose lives are devastated.’
On the day he launched the campaign, Mr Allan called for: the widespread pre and post trial disclosure failures to be addressed in all offences, not just in cases of sexual assaults; reform of the law of joint enterprise and a review of the operation of the Court of Appeal and under-resourced Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
‘I had always thought the Court of Appeal and the CCRC were fighting to correct miscarriages of justice, but they are not. They are not helpful, it’s just for show.
‘The CCRC refers only 0.03% of the cases it receives to the Court of Appeal — everyone else is left in prison. I could have been shut away in prison for ten years and would have been one of the many seeking to get a wrongful conviction overturned.’
He called for anonymity for defendants in all sex cases, unless otherwise ordered by a judge to encourage other potential victims to come forward.
Mr Allan stressed that genuine victims of crime must not be deterred from coming forward, but he called for those who have lied and made false allegations of rape to be prosecuted. He emphasised that he did not want to see complainants prosecuted in cases where juries have found defendants not guilty or rape. ‘In those cases, it does not mean that the complainant has not been raped, it means that the jury was not sure on the evidence beyond reasonable doubt.
‘If you open the door to prosecuting these people, it could be dangerous and would put off genuine victims from reporting offences.’
Mr Allan also called for information about the criminal justice process and people’s rights to be on the national curriculum. ‘School children should be taught about criminal justice and their rights – information needs to be made as simple as possible.
‘I didn’t know my rights at all – I didn’t know about legal aid or disclosure or how the process should be done. I was oblivious about the system and wrongly assumed that everything would be done properly’.
He further suggested that government money would be better spent on funding criminal legal aid adequately, instead of the spending vast amounts sending people to prison.
Mr Allen, who despite his two-year deal gained a first class degree in criminology from the University of Greenwich, said that the idea for the campaign came to him during a meeting of the APPGMJ, for the launch of the book ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent’, by journalist Jon Robins, at which he spoke. ‘I started to see that there were so many different people doing different things about the criminal justice system and miscarriages of justice, which was confusing for the media and the public, who didn’t know where to focus.
‘I thought we needed to get people fighting for change all around the country, and if people were serious about making change, we all needed to work together.’
He expressed the hope that Sir Cliff Richard, who successfully sued the BBC over its coverage of the police search of his home four years ago, would get on board with the campaign.
On making lasting change for the better, he said: ‘There is a new hope where there hasn’t been hope before. Hope is the most powerful thing we can have together. It makes things possible.’
Speaking about his ordeal, during which he was on bail for two years with the case hanging over his head, he said: ‘When I was charged, I was initially suspended from my job as an assistant manager in retail sales, before being allowed to return, and feared I would may lose my place at university. ‘
Mr Allan had always denied the charges, stating that the sex had been consensual, but it came down to the complainant’s word against his. In the run-up to the trial, his lawyers had made repeated requests for disclosure of text and social media messages, but had been told by the police that those that existed were ‘too personal’.
Mr Allan was incredulous: ‘How can anything be too personal — rape is the most personal offence.’
At the start of the trial it became clear that the prosecution was relying on text messages and his legal team again asked to see everything that had been downloaded. It was not until a new prosecutor, Jerry Hayes, was instructed that thousands of text messages were finally disclosed on the third day of the trial, including conversations that the complainant had had with others, which proved Mr Allan’s innocence — he and his team were up until the early hours of the following morning going through them.
Following the revelation, the case against him was dropped and Mr Hayes told the court it was the most appalling failure of disclosure he had ever encountered. After a review of the case the police, who Mr Allan is intending to sue, apologised for its failings. The case prompted a review by the CPS into disclosure in sex case, an inquiry by the justice committee and the CCRC announced that it will review more than rape convictions due to concerns that it failed to identify disclosure failings.
But Mr Allan is adamant that problems in the system should have been addressed earlier. ‘It shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have taken my case to get a review of the disclosure problems. People have been raising the issues for years – it shouldn’t have taken the worst case scenario before people acted.’
It was not only the disclosure process that failed him. After his arrest, he was initially represented at the police station by the duty solicitor. But unbeknown to him, the firm was closed down six months before he was charged. ‘No one told me – I had to track down the agent who had represented me at the police station who told me.’
Despite knowing his innocence, from the start of the trial, he said he began to lose a little bit of hope. ‘From the moment I walked into court, they [the prosecution] sought to add another charge. I honestly believe that part of the reason was that they hoped that the jury would believe one of the charges.
‘It felt like I wasn’t just fighting one battle, but that I was fighting 12 battles. If I could prove that one of the charges was a lie, it wouldn’t be enough – I’d still have to show that the others were lies too.’
Throughout the ordeal, he said it was his family and friends who kept him going. ‘I can’t even begin to praise them all enough but they were all there for me when it mattered most.
‘It was a fight for the truth and a fight for my life. I would have easily just have given up if it wasn’t for them, in all honesty. They were my support network and one day I hope I’ll be able to repay them for everything they’ve done for me.’
Despite everything that Mr Allan has been through, he is remarkably calm. He said: ‘There is of course underlying anger and upset, but just being angry never got anyone anywhere.
‘For our idea to work and to promote unity I need to be level-headed and open-minded, which is pretty difficult. ‘
He said that despite the continued coverage of the case, he has tried to move on and made his peace with what has happened.
‘That’s not to say I will ever agree it should have happened, but there are other people out there who have been through the same thing or are going through it now, so my mind is just focused on how we can help those people.
‘It’s probably therapeutic focusing on others needing help too, but if I was always angry about what happened to me then it would always define who I am and eventually consume me. Who would listen to an angry vengeful student really?’
Before his arrest, Mr Allan has wanted to work in the criminal justice, but he has since changed track. His desire to help people remains but, apart from through the campaign, he hopes to do it differently, and will start an MA in sociology at Greenwich University.
Ms Ackers, who as a child experienced the sharp end of criminal justice failings when her father’s violence against her mother went without charge, said of the campaign: ‘We want to achieve unity – change happens when people come together. We are acting on behalf of all who have been badly treated by the criminal justice system — victims who have not got justice as well as those who are wrongly accused.’
The ‘under-resourced’ criminal justice system, she said, did not work in the way it should. ‘People are not seen as innocent until proven guilty, but have to prove their innocence.’
She stressed: ‘We don’t want any of this to stop victims of crime from coming forward. Prosecutions still have to happen where people have been victims of crime, because that is absolutely devastating’.
Ms Akcers met Allan after inviting him to speak at Sheffield University. She said: ‘What happened to him could have happened to anyone – and I wanted to raise awareness of this to people of our age.’
A shorter version of this appeared in The Brief from Times Law.