Leading Article: British justice is let off the hook

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SIR JOHN MAY's inquiry has finally dashed hopes that the authorities will be shamed into penitence over one of this country's worst miscarriages of justice. Twenty years after the conviction of the wrong people for the Guildford and Woolwich bombings, Sir John was expected to name names and be stiff in his criticisms. Yet his inquiry has done little to satisfy those who have been badly abused by the judicial system.

A hard-hitting report was the least the name of British justice deserved. The Guildford Four endured 14 years in jail for crimes they did not commit. When their convictions were quashed, the Crown alleged that police officers had misled the court that tried them. Yet no police officer has been successfully prosecuted. As in the Birmingham Six case, the real bombers have never been tried for the crime. A slur has been left on the characters of the Four, whose final appeal was granted before they had a chance to present in public the case demonstrating their innocence.

In the light of such injustice, the Guildford Four deserved something stronger than the weak brew served up yesterday after Sir John's four-and-a-half-year inquiry. A judiciary that proved itself to be so gullible in this case is vindicated, even praised. Mild criticisms of the police do not identify individuals, who are spared the public spotlight. Most surprisingly, Sir John claims that the miscarriages could not be attributed to any 'specific weakness or inherent fault in the criminal justice system itself'.

This conclusion is at best disingenuous, given the many failings that Sir John pinpoints in his 309- page report. This is a system that destroyed the alibi of one defendant and suppressed that of another. It failed to reveal crucial forensic evidence to the defence. Having coerced confessions out of the innocent, this apparently sound system persisted in condemning the wrong people even after known IRA terrorists, members of the Balcombe Street gang, had confessed to the bombings. For years the police, the Court of Appeal and the Home Office could not countenance the thought that the wrong people were languishing in prison.

The checks and balances of justice failed the Guildford Four not merely because of numerous individual faults, as Sir John would have us believe. They failed because the system, from the outset and for years to follow, worked to confirm rather than question the original assumption that the Four were guilty. There is, as Sir John says, no evidence of a conspiracy. Just a tragic story of complacency, to which the May report adds another chapter.