The Home Office said that Sir John had decided to end all public hearings in the inquiry in order to meet a deadline for preparing his report to the Royal Commission into the justice system. The move is in stark contrast to the public hearings he has already conducted into the related case of the Maguire family which led to the quashing of their convictions for explosives offences last year.
In an indication that the decision to curtail and move the inquiry into private session may prompt a boycott, Alastair Logan, solicitor for the Maguire family, as well as Carole Richardson and Patrick Armstrong, two of the Four, said last night: 'Witnesses will no longer be examined or cross-examined by anyone except by Sir John in secret. The Guildford Four may never know what lay hidden in the police files for 15 years.'
Chris Mullin, the Labour MP who campaigned to overturn the Birmingham Six, Guildford and Maguire convictions, said Sir John's inquiry had 'been knobbled from the moment that it became clear that he was not prepared to participate in a whitewash'.
Lawyers and campaigners are now concerned that crucial questions surrounding the role of key people involved in the prosecution will not be properly answered. Who for example, decided not to disclose that Gerard Conlon, another of the Four, had an alibi for the night of the Guildford bombings? Who in the Director of Public Prosecutions instructed a scientist to alter his evidence? Why, when IRA members of the convicted Balcombe Street gang admitted their part in the Guildford bombings, was the case not reopened?
Those who might have been expected to give evidence to its final phase include Sir Peter Imbert, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and a retired commander, Jim Nevill, both former bomb squad officers who questioned the Balcombe Street men and sent a file to the DPP.
Crown lawyers who included Michael Hill QC, and Paul Purnell QC, DPP officials and Surrey detectives who conducted all the disputed interviews with the Four as well as senior officers who ran the inquiry and supervised interrogations may also have faced cross- examination.
The decision to end full public hearings was announced by the Home Office yesterday following discussions earlier this week between Sir John, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General. They said it would be 'impractical' to hold public hearings while the prosecution of three Surrey police officers was still outstanding.
Sir John is trapped between his obligation to complete the inquiry in time for it to form part of the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice due next June and his statement at the outset of the inquiry that public hearings into the role of the police and lawyers would not take place until all criminal proceedings had been completed.
The case against three Surrey detectives, charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in relation to interviews with Mr Armstrong, has been delayed by legal arguments and will now not take place before next April. This makes it impossible for any public hearings to be completed between its conclusion and the deadline for the commission, of which Sir John is a member.
Instead of conducting public hearings, the Home Office said yesterday, Sir John will now be writing 'an account' of the Guildford and Woolwich affair based on the 'extensive documentary evidence' he has already obtained. The inquiry may still produce a separate report for publication after the trial and may take evidence in private.
The inquiry was established in October 1989 following the release of the four people jailed for life in 1975 for the Guildford and Woolwich public house bombings and the related Maguire case.
But yesterday in answer to the criticism, Richard Mason, a member of Sir John's inquiry secretariat, said: 'Before people start getting too cynical look at our record.'