The Big Questions: Has British justice improved since the 1960s? Should MPs accept a pay rise?

This week's big questions are answered by human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson


Your new book takes up the case of Stephen Ward, who was at centre of the Profumo affair. How realistic is the prospect of his conviction being overturned?

It’s not without precedent – Derek Bentley’s wrongful conviction at the hands of Lord Goddard was overturned after almost half a century, and Stephen Ward remains the most shameful unrectified miscarriage of justice in modern British history. The worst of it is that he was convicted as a result of judicial misconduct, after the Home Secretary had directed the police to hunt up evidence against him. I have counted 12 grounds for quashing his conviction which have a realistic prospect of success if his case is referred back to the Court of Appeal. Unlike other miscarriage cases, he wasn’t just innocent of a crime: there was no crime in the first place. The law was bent in order to persuade the jury to convict.

Fifty years on, has British justice improved?

Immeasurably. The criminal body with the power to review wrongful convictions was set up on the day the Birmingham Six were released from prison. There have been many necessary reforms and judges are much more attentive to human rights. The adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights has provided a valuable basis for ensuring fair trials. In public law our judges are now prepared to stand up to governments in ways they were reluctant to do in the past, and in commercial matters litigants come from all over the world clamouring to have their cases heard by an independent and impartial judge. But British justice is now at risk from this government, which wants to deny the poor access to it by demolishing legal aid. The pre-war joke – that the courts are open to all just like the Ritz hotel – will be heard again in the land.

What do you think of the Pope being named Time Person of the Year?

No doubt a lot of Catholics voted, and with great relief. Francis has shown immediate and genuine concern for the poor, unlike the wretched Ratzinger who sacked liberation theologians and protected paedophile priests. But it remains the case that the Vatican still promulgates a cruel agenda – homosexuality is evil, and so is divorce and family planning; women have no right to choose; condoms cannot be used to combat Aids, and so on. Francis has made a good start, but there is so much more he must do – more than just wringing his hands over child sex abuse, for example – before he can truly be “man of the year” for the poor.

The high court in Australia has just overruled gay marriage in the nation’s capital. How do you view this ruling?

This ruling was unsurprising because the Australian high court has no bill of rights to work with, which would have enabled it to strike down an archaic marriage law. It will now be a matter for the federal parliament, which will eventually have to position itself on the right side of history – how long can Australians suffer the jibe that they are less progressive than New Zealand?

Meanwhile, the UK Supreme Court has just ruled in favour of a Scientology wedding, in effect granting Scientology the status of a religion. Was it right?

Absolutely. A religion is no more than a group of people who hold a belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle. It can include believers in Bob Marley or Buddha, L Ron Hubbard or Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, even a small group in Highgate said to worship Christopher Hitchens. But the decision does draw attention to the craziness of our tax and charity laws. Religions are businesses, in reality, and should pay the going rate in corporate tax. The Government should abolish tax exemptions for religions, unless they offer some public service in return.

Government surveillance – both here and in the US – has been one of the most contentious issues of the year. Are we the people powerless to resist it?

“We” – in the sense of “we the people” – are certainly not powerless, although the representatives we have elect are supine and ignorant on the issue. Only in Germany, with memories of the Stasi and Gestapo, do politicians really worry about the evisceration of privacy in respect of electronic communications. And here, it’s the politicians’ fault, because they have taken the right to grant warrants for privacy invasion out of the hands of judges, and given them to government ministers who are patsies – they rubber-stamp all requests by the spooks. MI5 has a history of using private information to damage individuals, and I don’t see why GCHQ should be trusted without independent oversight. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a joke. Thanks to Parliament, the answer to the quis custodiet questions is nemo.

Should MPs accept the pay rise recommended by Ipsa?

Ipsa was set up as an independent body by MPs who thought they would not suffer the opprobrium of being seen to vote themselves large pay rises. Now they face opprobrium if they accept its reasoned recommendation for a large increase. Ipsa’s recommendation is obviously right, but to accept it at a time when the Government is imposing austerity on everyone else is obviously wrong. It’s a case of bad timing – and unlike some of their constituents, MPs are not going to go hungry this winter.

Geoffrey Robertson is a QC specialising in human rights, and the author of ‘Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK’, published by Biteback

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