We need justice, not convictions

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The Independent Online

It has not been a good few days for the British justice system. For those who complacently insist that our judges, police officers, lawyers and juries are "the best in the world", three cases should have acted as a wake-up call.

It has not been a good few days for the British justice system. For those who complacently insist that our judges, police officers, lawyers and juries are "the best in the world", three cases should have acted as a wake-up call.

First, the Scottish judges trying the Lockerbie case in Camp Zeist, Holland, came to the surprising decision last week that one of the accused was guilty of the murders and the other innocent. Their conclusion raised eyebrows, even among some of the Lockerbie victims' families, who questioned the judges' insistent belief that the bomb which blew apart the plane was planted in Malta. Unanswered questions from the trial have led to widespread calls for a full independent inquiry into the terrorist outrage that killed 270 people.

The second blow to British justice came on Tuesday, when Michael Stone's conviction for the horrific murder of Lin Russell and her six-year-old, Megan, and the attempted murder of her other daughter, Josie, was quashed. Stone will now undergo a retrial. The sub judice laws prevent us from commenting at length, but it is clear that Stone's conviction - with its reliance on the testimony of a man who confessed to lying on oath at the first trial - was an insult to justice.

Then, on Wednesday, the Court of Appeal freed Stephen Downing after he had spent nearly three decades behind bars convicted of a killing he says he did not commit. Thanks to the persistence of Downing's supporters, not least in the Matlock Mercury, a gross miscarriage of justice has been put right. But only after 27 years.

The maxim of "innocent until proven guilty", the cornerstone of our system, is the right one. But each of these cases throws light on a different problem. Once convicted, a felon is then "guilty until proven innocent". Just how hard must it be to prove a wrongful conviction?

There is, perhaps rightly, a mystique about our courts of law which puts great weight on verdicts. But the stigma that attaches to wrongful convictions makes it hard - too hard - for the truth to emerge. As in every walk of life, mistakes are made in court. We must accept this as part of the due process; no system is perfect. But having accepted it, the legal establishment must devise a better system for putting right their mistakes. We do not seek a charter that would entail repeated appeals clogging up the courts, merely a speedier method of pinpointing obviously unfair convictions.

Our courts of law are, sadly, not courts of justice. They would serve us all better if they were reminded that justice, not a conviction, is what we all seek.

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