Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.’
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun