Leading Article: An indefensible anachronism

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IT IS an extraordinary and anomalous feature of this country's judicial system that it falls to the Home Secretary to decide whether action should be taken to correct a possible miscarriage of justice. It is even more extraordinary that he is under no obligation to publish any of the evidence on which his judgement is based.

Four men were convicted in 1979 of the murder of Carl Bridgewater, a 13-year-old paper boy shot in the head at a farm in Staffordshire when he came upon a burglary. The case was complicated, but a significant number of serious campaigners for justice believe that the wrong men were imprisoned - not least because the convictions seemed to hinge on a confession extracted by a detective subsequently demonstrated to have been a fabricator of evidence. The Court of Appeal looked at the case in 1981 and 1987, deciding on the first occasion that no review was justified, on the second that the jury's verdicts were sound. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, has now decided that a 'comprehensive review' of the case has produced nothing to justify further action.

In his statement, Mr Clarke sought to justify his decision by referring to details of the case. Naturally, he did so selectively. If there is any fresh evidence that might contradict any of his assertions, the public and the solicitors who prepared the submission for a review will be denied access to it. To most people that looks neither like justice nor like the more open government that John Major aspires to institute.

Mr Clarke does not believe in the system he is obliged to operate. Both he and Douglas Hurd, his Home Office predecessor, have formally supported the growing view - to which Labour's Tony Blair yesterday lent his weight - that such reviews should be carried out by an independent tribunal: Mr Hurd in October 1991 in evidence to Sir John May's inquiry into the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven cases; Mr Clarke when the May report was published last December.

One good reason for changing existing practice was well put by the Bar Council in its submission to the current Royal Commission on Criminal Justice: 'The Home Office is a singularly inappropriate institution to examine the conduct of persons for whom it has its own responsibilities. All recent notorious cases (of miscarriages of justice) involved allegations against the police or challenges to the competence or integrity of forensic services employed by the Government.' An independent review body that included lay members would suffer from no such conflict of interests.

The present system is an indefensible anachronism, harking back to the days when the Home Secretary, on behalf of the Crown, had the power to exercise clemency towards murderers sentenced to hang. The Home Office neither was nor is equipped to deal with such issues. It should be no part of a Home Secretary's duties to sit in judgement on whether there are adequate grounds for believing that a miscarriage of justice has taken place. As long as he is obliged to do so, he should err on the side of too many referrals. In this instance, as in his decision last October to deny a posthumous pardon to Derek Bentley, Mr Clarke seems to have been keener to defend the interests of the judicial system than those of justice.