Law reform leads to rough justice fears

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The Independent Online
An obscure clause tacked onto the Criminal Procedure Act last year will have the effect of stopping investigations into miscarriages of justice. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, asks if a measure aimed at paedophiles will end up keeping the innocent behind bars.

Lawyers, journalists and programmes like Trial and Error which investigate miscarriages of justice are threatened by a new law which makes disclosing the evidence from a court case a contempt of court.

The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, which became law last year, was created to change the rules covering the disclosure of police evidence to defence counsel in criminal trials. Clause 17 of the Act now makes all the material given to the defence confidential to the case. To disclose it to outside parties is now a contempt of court.

"I am very, very concerned that this will close us down." says David Jessel, the broadcaster and veteran investigator of miscarriages of justice. "When we do investigations it is through a thorough reading of the disclosed material that we can build our case. Now we are not going to be able to do that."

Jim Nichol, the solicitor who fought to get the Bridgewater Three released, is seeking a barristers' opinion on the new law and plans to ask for a meeting with the Home Secretary.

"This could be the end of investigative journalism into convictions," said Mr Nichol. "And it slipped through without anyone fighting it."

The Act lifts confidentiality on material used in open court, but Mr Nichol believes this is inadequate for reopening an investigation. "You very seldom see any material in open courts, you hear evidence, you don't see full statements, you don't see fingerprints or all the other material we get in evidence.

"This law now makes it an offence for a prisoner to send me his case files so that I can look into his case. If I read those files I'm committing an offence."

The clause was included in the Act at a late stage in its passage through Parliament because of concerns about paedophiles using sexually explicit evidence from their cases as pornography. Stories in the press indicated that some of the material was being exchanged with other convicted paedophiles.

It was also intended to prevent prisoners using the material to blackmail witnesses and other defendants.

The Act allows for a prisoner to apply to a court to be able to release his evidence, but Mr Nichol believes this just adds another barrier to overturning miscarriages of justice: "These cases only get reopened because prisoners circulate their evidence to whoever will look, to see if someone will take it up. It is impossible to take up a prisoner's case and go through the process if you haven't seen all the evidence."

Without access to court documents, programmes like Rough Justice, World in Action and Trial and Error would never have overturned the cases against the Guildford Four and the Bridgewater Three.