Leading Article: A credibility gap too far

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The Independent Online
Politicians, journalists and lawyers are much-maligned people these days, as agents of sleaze or invaders of other people's privacy. But without the diligence and sheer doggedness of a backbench MP, Chris Mullin, a journalist, Paul Foot, and of Jim Nichol, the Bridgewater Three's solicitor, several of our worst instances of miscarriage of justice would never have come to light.

The claims of innocent men would have fallen on deaf ears, and they would have remained behind bars. We honour them, and wish there were more like them. But they are rare birds. Westminster and the media are mesmerised by the soundbite. The minutiae of forensic evidence and whereabouts of victims, suspects and witnesses after years of fruitless inquiry, do not satisfy the impulsive quality of either politics or journalism.

Perhaps the need for figures like Mr Mullin and Mr Foot and lawyers who refuse to let matters drop will diminish now that a new public body has been established to consider miscarriages of justice. But that would be an uncommonly optimistic assessment. The new body, known as the Criminal Cases Review Commission, is composed mainly from lawyers who usually prosecute rather than defend. Its chairman is a former university administrator and scientist.

For reasons it has kept entirely to itself, the Government failed to respond to offers of assistance from lawyers who represented the defence in the cases that led to the establishment of the CCRC in the first place. They make a litany of injustice: the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Tottenham Three, Judith Ward, Stefan Kiszko, Eddie Browning, Colin Wallace, the Taylor sisters and, of course, the Bridgewater Three.

It seems perverse of the Government to concentrate appointments among those whose experience has been on the prosecution benches. Two members of the new commission actually worked on the preparation of some of the prosecutions of the 1970s and 1980s now declared "unsafe", as senior officials in the government prosecution service. They are joined by a former chief constable.

This is alarming. The group that bears the heaviest responsibility for the spate of wrongful prosecutions is the prosecutors. Either evidence was obtained improperly or faked, as in the case of the late Patrick Molloy, the fourth man from Bridgewater, or details helpful to the defence were withheld.

After all these shattering and heart-rending sagas, we are about to entrust adjudication of miscarriages of justice to a body that will have to work extremely hard to win any credibility. Under its present management, it may never do so.

A recurring theme in these cases of injustice has been the inability or unwillingness of the police to investigate its own officers. The Bridgewater Three were no exception. The new commission has the authority to investigate cases itself but it is permitted, and is more likely, to subcontract investigations to the police. This does not suggest that the commission is imbued with a sense of purpose, or of urgency, or of experience.

Public bodies of this kind are instinctively mistrustful of people like Chris Mullin and Paul Foot; and, to be truthful, this mistrust is reciprocated. But there really is no reason why criminal lawyers who normally appear for the defence or even experienced journalists cannot be co-opted to the commission.

The Bridgewater Three are the most recent victims of our judicial system. It would be reassuring to believe that they will be among the last. We only wish we could.