LAW REPORT / Fair trial of officers not possible: Regina v Reade, Morris and Woodwiss. - Central Criminal Court (Mr Justice Garland): 15 October 1993.

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The combination of delay, the intensity, volume and continuity of publicity about the corruption and violence of police investigations in the Birmingham Six case and the difficulties of re-examining events in 1974 to 1991 made it impossible for the officers charged with conspEiracy to pervert the course of justice in the Birmingham Six casTHER write errore to have a fair trial.

Mr Justice Garland gave reasons for staying criminal proceedings against the three defendant police officers.

Following the IRA bombing campaign in 1974, the 'Birmingham Six' were convicted of 21 counts of murder. The Six alleged that their confessions should not have been admitted at trial because they were involuntary. In 1976, the Court of Appeal dismissed their appeals. The Six continued to allege that the police who had interviewed them were guilty of perjury and violence. In the 1980s books, television programmes and articles attacked the reliability of the confessions and the convictions. In 1988, the Court of Appeal dismissed the Six's appeals on the Home Secretary's reference.

In 1990, electrostatic document analysis developed in the 1980s showed anomalies in the supposedly contemporaneous notes of interviews with one of the Six. In 1991, the Six's convictions were quashed. Further publicity was generated giving prominence to police brutality and corruption linked to the Birmingham Six case as well as the cases of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, Judith Ward and the Broadwater Farm Three. The defendants, three police officers who had interviewed the Six, were charged with conspirary to pervert the course of justice. The defence submitted that it was impossible for the defendants to have a fair trial.

Edmund Lawson QC and Mukul Chawla; David Crigman QC and John Wait; Anthony Hughes QC and Mel Inman (Russell Jones & Walker) for the defendants; Victor Temple QC, William Boyce and Edward Brown (CPS) for the Crown.

MR JUSTICE GARLAND said that the court's jurisdiction to stay criminal proceedings was to ensure that there should be a fair trial. The task for the court was to make a single appreciation of what was, or was not, in the particular circumstances fair or unfair. The burden of establishing unfairness rested on the defendant alleging it, on the balance of probabilities. The jurisdiction to grant a stay should be regarded as exceptional and used sparingly and only for compelling reasons.

The result of the volume, intensity and continuity of coverage given to the Birmingham Six and other cases was twofold: (1) the Birmingham Six had become a synonym for forced confessions; (2) the publicity attending the 1991 appeal gave the impression that the court was finding the defendant police officers guilty of conspirary and perjury.

His Lordship was not suggesting that the coverage should have been restricted or moderated in order to avoid prejudicing future criminal proceedings. In an open society where there was freedom to investigate, report and comment, the extent of what was permissible was set by the law of defamation, copyright, breach of confidence, contempt of court, invasion of privacy and self-regulation. Here, publicity, though a powerful factor, did not stand alone.

Prosecutions against the police officers in the Guildford Four case were allowed to proceed and resulted in acquittals by the jury, but the publicity generated was far less in volume and duration than that arising from the Birmingham case. Re-examining the events in 1974 coupled with witness and evidence difficulties put the defence at a substantial disadvantage. It would be at best difficult and in practice impossible to isolate the narrow Crown case, which relied on the interviews with one of the Six, from the whole matrix of events from 1975 to 1991 about which there were strong public perceptions.

The general publicity had snowballed. Looking at all the circumstances of the case, on the balance of probabilities this was a proper case in which to exercise, exceptionally, the jurisdiction to grant a stay of criminal proceedings.