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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Miscarriages of justice: the latest and the worst?

Miscarriages of justice

A miscarriage of justice can be defined as a failure of a court or judicial system to attain the ends of justice, especially one which results in the conviction of an innocent person.

The most recent example of a serious miscarriage of justice in the English legal system was related to Post Office prosecutions.

In the case of Hamilton and others v Post Office Ltd [2021] EWCA Crim 577,

39 former sub-postmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system had their convictions quashed. The appeals were allowed on the basis that the prosecutions were an affront to the public conscience.

•The prosecutions irreparably ruined the lives of scores of sub-postmasters resulting in the loss of their jobs, homes and marriages.

•The Post Office knew that there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon and had a clear duty to investigate its defects. It had consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable and effectively steamrollered over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy.

•Evidence of serious defects in the Horizon system was concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence in order to protect the Post Office at all costs.

•The Post Office conceded that the appeals of the 39 should be allowed on the basis that they did not or could not have had a fair trial.

•Counsel for five of the appellants stated that the Post Office’s failure to investigate and disclose serious problems with Horizon was the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory. The Post Office had turned itself into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand.

•There was an institutional imperative of acquitting Horizon and convicting sub-postmasters in order to protect Horizon and the Post Office’s own commercial reputation.

•In December 2019 the Post Office settled a civil claim by 550 claimants for £57.75 million, without admitting liability.

Other serious miscarriages of justice include the following:

· Guildford Four. In summary, a group of three men and one woman who were convicted for the Guildford pub bombings in 1975. All four confessed. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial judge is reported to have commented that he regretted that they had not been charged with treason, which carried the death penalty. Their convictions were quashed in 1989. They stated that their confessions had been obtained by intimidation and torture. Alibi evidence was not shown to the police. There was evidence of police collusion in fabricating evidence.

· Maguire Seven. Seven persons who were convicted of handling explosives and were sentenced to terms ranging from 4 to 14 years. The convictions were quashed in 1991. The court stated that police officers had beaten some of them into confessing and had withheld information. Forensic evidence was discredited.

· Judith Ward. A woman who confessed to a number of bombings. She was convicted despite retracting the confessions and spent 18 years in prison before her conviction was quashed. Her confession had resulted from a mental illness. Forensic evidence was unreliable.

· Birmingham Six. Six men were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings. Their convictions were overturned in 1991. They had been forced to sign statements and there was evidence that the police had fabricated evidence.

· Bridgwater Four. Four men were convicted of murder in 1978. In 1997 they were released on the basis that their trial had been unfair and following allegations of serious, substantial and widespread police malpractice.

· Tottenham Three. Three men were convicted of murder following the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985. Their convictions were quashed four years later when it was shown that police notes of interrogations had been tampered with.

· Stefan Kiszko. Kiszko spent 17 years in prison for a murder to which he confessed. Forensic evidence had been suppressed by the police. He was released in 1992. The Kiszko case has been described as the worst miscarriage of justice of all time.

· Cardiff Three. Three men who were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal. Police evidence was described as almost entirely a fabrication and largely the product of the imagination. The court stated that it was hard to conceive of a more hostile and intimidatory approach by police officers.

· Sally Clark. A solicitor, wrongly convicted of the murder of her two sons. She was released after serving three years of her sentence. Statistical evidence was deeply flawed. Clark was unable to recover from the effects of her conviction and imprisonment.

These are some of the most extreme and well-publicised examples of the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the innocent. The list goes on and on but never seems to affect the constant myth that English justice is the finest in the world, that all foreign systems are in some way inferior.

In McIlkenny v Chief Constable of West Midlands Police Force (1980), where the Birmingham Six, later to be released on appeal, brought civil proceedings against the police. Lord Denning struck out the action and commented:

If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, and that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean that the Home Secretary would either have to recommend that they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: it cannot be right that these actions should go further.

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