Bridgewater Four inquiry conducted by one man

Hard-pressed officers worked at weekends, leaked papers reveal
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The Independent Online
Investigations into possible miscarriages of justice with regard to the Bridgewater Four and other key cases were put at risk by Home Office staff shortages and a rising tide of inquiries into police misconduct, documents obtained by the Independent reveal.

The papers show that the inquiry into a dossier from lawyers of the four men convicted of murdering newspaper delivery boy Carl Bridgewater in 1979, was conducted largely by one official working from home at weekends.

The investigation resulted in a further police inquiry but Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, decided not to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal. New evidence later came to light which resulted in a decision last month to refer the case. Jim Nichol, lawyer for the men (one of whom is now dead) said last night that he would have taken the Home Office to court if he had been aware of the staffing crisis.

The documents show that in August and October of 1991, senior officials believed that C3, the division responsible for investigating claims of miscarriage of justice, was understaffed and swamped by an ever-increasing workload. Staff morale, one said, was "at an all-time low". Police misconduct, and publicity surrounding the reversal of wrongful convictions such as the Guildford Four and involving the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, meant that more people were aware of their right to appeal for a review of their cases. The division could not cope with the extra work.

On 6 August 1991, Mrs M Mitev from the legal advisers' section wrote: "There is no spare capacity at HEO [higher executive officer] level to undertake one-off tasks or properly absorb a major campaign case without other work suffering, for example, the HEO responsible for the Hickey [Bridgewater] case did most of the current work at home at weekends; the HEO responsible for the Cleeland case [another possible miscarriage of justice] had to be taken off her regular duties for a time to review the case speedily; these were reallocated and this, of course, burdened other hard-pressed officers; routine work and target dates are badly affected when a major case lands on an officer's desk ..."

Requesting additional staff, Mrs Mitev reported: "... it is becoming increasingly difficult to give full and proper attention to the cases and I fear staff morale may be suffering"

On 17 August she pointed out: "This type of work is particularly demanding and tiring ... I would like to repeat my request for additional staff ... [morale] is now at an all-time low."

A month later, Robert Baxter, then head of C3, complained: ''Major campaign cases such as the Hickeys, [Derek] Bentley [hanged for the murder of a police officer] and Sara Thornton [freed earlier this year after a Court of Appeal ordered a retrial] are having to be absorbed on caseworkers' desks within their routine caseload. I am concerned that if staff are increasingly overburdened, too much pressure of work could lead to vital aspects of the case not being properly addressed."

Mr Nichol said: "It is absolutely disgraceful that innocent people could be left to rot in prison because of undermanning."

"I was specifically assured that meticulous investigations were being undertaken but I now know that they lied to me, to the public and to Parliament."

Iris Bentley, whose brother Derek was hanged for peripheral involvement in the murder of a policeman in the Fifties, said she was "sickened to hear that the Government cared so little about righting injustice".

A Home Office spokesman said that it was not the department's policy to comment on leaked documents.