Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Justice as rough as ever

Miscarriages of justice are still shockingly common, but 20 years after the release of the Birmingham Six, the issue isn’t fashionable any more. Jon Robins reports

July 18, 2011
4 min read


Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


  share     tweet  

Some 18 months ago, a man walked into the office of Birmingham-based lawyer Maslen Merchant. He had just pleaded guilty to a serious sexual offence against a child. ‘He told me that he wasn’t guilty but had been bullied into pleading guilty by his lawyers,’ says Maslen. Apparently, the man was told that if he was convicted he would get life (‘the same sentence you get for murder’). Petrified, he agreed to go with the lesser offence.

‘It took me about five minutes to have serious concerns that he had a learning disability. His difficulty with speech was a clue,’ Maslen recalls, adding that the ‘real clincher’ was that the man ‘took three attempts to sign his own name’.

That man has since been acquitted after a new defence team led by Maslen commissioned reports from a psychologist and psychiatrist placing him in the bottom 0.3 per cent of the population in terms of IQ, indicating that he was both highly suggestible and suffering a severe learning disability.

It has been two decades since the release of the Birmingham Six – Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Johnny Walker – sent shockwaves through the criminal justice landscape. They had been in prison for 16 years.

Their release eventually led to the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) 13 years ago as the independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice. Since then, though, such miscarriages seem to have dropped off the radar. The issue has been consigned to some distant Life on Mars past.

The media, which did so much spadework on the issue in the 1970s and 1980s, through, for example, the BBC’s Rough Justice, has given up. The broadcaster pulled the plug on Rough Justice after 25 years in 2007. Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel 4, dismissed Trial and Error, which also investigated miscarriages, as a ‘bit 1980s’.

Sadly, while miscarriages of justice might have gone out of fashion, they haven’t gone away. The CCRC is deluged by close to 1,000 new applications every year, and rejects 96 per cent. There is growing disquiet about its lack of action (see Red Pepper, Feb/Mar 2010).

Maslen reckons many miscarriages of justice are down to shoddy work done by defence lawyers struggling under the commercial realities of running a high-volume business on a diminishing legal aid budget.

He wonders what the lawyers who advised his client with learning disabilities were playing at. ‘How couldn’t they see he was vulnerable? Why put him under such pressure? Why even mention murder?’ The answer, according to the lawyer, is that putting in the extra work – for example, obtaining medical reports – was such an inconvenience that it was simply not cost-effective. ‘This was a business decision. It was a gross miscarriage of justice.’

Meanwhile, Gareth Peirce, the veteran campaigning lawyer who represented the Birmingham Six, talks of the creation of ‘a new suspect community’ of young Muslims.

That view chimes with the experience of Maslen, who has specialised in miscarriages of justice for 20 years. ‘In the 1970s it almost became an arrestable offence to be Irish in a city centre in England. In the 1980s and 1990s people were arrested for being black in a built up area. Since 9/11 it seems that sufficient suspicion is raised for an arrest if you have a beard and appear to be Muslim.’

Against this backdrop there is growing concern about the CCRC. Veteran campaigning journalist Bob Woffinden has gone so far as to damn the commission as ‘an experiment that failed’. He reckons the CCRC can only take credit for taking seven ‘major cases’ to appeal since 2005. He argues that many notorious cases are left to languish.

The commission has been spared the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, though it faces cuts, but Woffinden argues it exists only to serve as a ‘fig leaf’ for the system. That’s a minority view, though. The CCRC needs to be ‘supported and expanded’, argues Michael Mansfield QC, who has been associated with the overturning of numerous notorious cases from the Birmingham Six to Barry George.

Mansfield urges its critics not to play into the hands of those who would see it consigned to history. ‘There is a strong reactionary lobby that should not be underestimated,’ he says, ‘which embraces the doctrine “prison works” and regards prisoners as almost sub-human, meriting few facilities and, heaven forbid, the right to vote.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


11