South Australia is set to overhaul its criminal appeals process for the first time in almost a century, thanks in part to research and advocacy by Flinders law lecturer Ms Bibi Sangha.
A Legislative Review Committee has made a recommendation to set up a new statutory right of appeal that will enable prisoners with evidence of a wrongful conviction to directly approach the courts.
It was a 2010 book written by Ms Sangha, Dr Bob Moles and Professor Kent Roach on unjust convictions stemming from flawed forensic evidence that first prompted Ann Bressington MLC to propose the establishment of a Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), along UK lines.
Currently, South Australia has no legal mechanism to guarantee a right to further appeal even where fresh evidence emerges to show a person is innocent.
Ms Sangha and Dr Moles made a 76-page submission to the committee, pointing out the need to redress the legal blind-spot, particularly where forensic evidence has resulted in wrongful convictions. It is estimated that more than a dozen existing South Australian convictions for serious crimes have grounds for a judicial appeal.
While the committee has not backed the setting up of a broadly based CCRC, it has recommended the formation of a Forensic Review Panel that will have the capacity to recommend appeals in the light of doubt over forensic issues.
The committee has also recommended a review of expert evidence and the way it is received in courts in criminal matters.
“We highlighted in our book and in our submission to the inquiry that a common cause of wrongful convictions is the admission of unreliable forensic evidence,” Ms Sangha said.
“It can have a seriously prejudicial effect on the minds of jurors – and is frequently not sufficiently scrutinised by judges or probed or tested by defence lawyers.”
Ms Sangha said the Bill now being drafted for legislative consideration that incorporates the right to appeal is short and to the point, but is likely to have profound ramifications in South Australia and possibly beyond: if the Bill becomes law, other States will probably modify their own legislation to retain a common national approach.