Helena Kennedy on why Ministers must do the decent thing on compensation for miscarriages of justice
Later today, Peers will debate a number of crucial issues during the final session of Report on the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, among which is an amendment I have jointly tabled with Crossbench Peers Lord Pannick and Baroness O’Loan, and our own Shadow Justice Minister, Jeremy Beecham. It is on an issue of basic decency.
People acquitted of crime do not ordinarily receive compensation for being prosecuted. As they leave court, acquitted, they are supposed to be relieved that their ordeal is over. If they are convicted and at a later date – sometimes years later – that conviction is quashed, compensation is paid in a small number of cases.
The Supreme Court decided recently that compensation will only be paid if new evidence comes to light which casts the case in a very different light. The new fact has to be so significant that no conviction could now safely be based on the evidence taken as a whole.
This is not about people having convictions overturned on a technicality. To ask people to prove their innocence beyond reasonable doubt is an affront to our system of law. It flies in the face of one of our key legal principles, which acknowledges that people can rarely prove they are innocent beyond reasonable doubt. Prove that you didn’t do it? In a few cases DNA can prove innocence but they are few. In a few cases an alibi can be bullet proof, but again few.
Having been involved in a number of serious cases involving miscarriages of justice, I know the toll – the cost to both lives and the integrity of the system. I acted in the Guildford Four Appeal, where three men and a woman had been convicted wrongly of bombings for which they were not responsible. I know because I also acted for those who were responsible for those bombings. The convictions of the Guildford Four were a travesty but a statement came to light 17 years too late, after years of assiduous work by wonderful solicitors which showed the case to be profoundly flawed. A statement had been deliberately buried and it provided an alibi which when examined caused the unravelling of the whole case.
I acted for a woman called Mary Druhan who was convicted of arson when she was in her 50s. She came blinking out into the light after 11 years in jail, unable to negotiate public transport, incapable of rebuilding her life without considerable help. Her daughter had committed suicide whilst she was in prison. New forensic evidence threw the whole case, as the series Rough Justice did the hard graft, finding that the fire could not have been started in the way described and that Mary was not in the vicinity anyway. That wonderful series has gone now – too expensive they said – only to be replaced with Big Brother and other ‘celebrity’ nonsense.
I chaired the Royal Colleges’ inquiry in Sudden Infant Death, which involved reviewing the cases of Sally Clarke and other women convicted of killing their babies. Try to think of something worse than your babies dying and your demented state in the face of that loss –and then being wrongly accused of their deaths. It is no wonder Sally, who had been a practicing solicitor, did not live for long after her convictions were quashed. Again, vital evidence was somehow not disclosed to the defence. People who should have known better jumped to conclusions.
Cases go wrong. That is why there is a folly in slashing legal aid which allows really experienced counsel to conduct the hardest ones. When new material comes to light, which changes the whole complexion of a case, and it becomes clear that a jury would have reached a different verdict, those who have suffered should have some compensation. I have seen the cost of miscarriages of justice up close. Families destroyed. Jobs lost. The mental despair and anguish which is never fully resolved. People’s lives ruined, and not going back to how they were. This is where a decent society finds ways to make amends.
Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws is a QC and a backbench Labour Peer
Published 22nd January 2014