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RIP The Presumption of Innocence

(Posted on 25/03/14)

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RIP The Presumption of Innocence
In the March issue of this newspaper, solicitor Matt Foot and I reported on government moves to compensate victims of wrongful conviction only where they could conclusively prove their innocence. The House of Lords tried to modify the government’s hard-line stance by allowing compensation where new facts mean no conviction could possibly be based on the prosecution case as it now stands. The government was having none of it and bussed in sufficient coalition peers to vote through its mean-minded plans. Section 175 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 now provides that a miscarriage of justice has occurred ‘if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person did not commit the offence’. As outlined in our March article, the legislation makes it impossible for the vast majority of wrongly convicted persons to be awarded compensation for their ordeal.

Billy Power of the Birmingham Six observes that the new definition ‘effectively means persons whose convictions are quashed will no longer have the status they had prior to conviction.  It introduces ambiguities and leaves a defendant in a legal grey area.  The standard presumption of innocence would be abolished’. He also raises another serious likely consequence. On the day the Birmingham Six were freed in 1991, I drafted at the men’s request a campaign press statement warning that anyone indulging in ‘whispering campaigns’ disputing the men’s innocence would henceforth be served with writs for defamation. Some sections of the media foolishly ignored the warning. Billy recalls that ‘after our convictions were quashed, various newspapers were successfully sued by us and the Guildford Four for running articles claiming our innocence wasn’t proven’. He points out that legislation which ‘makes it impossible for a person wrongfully convicted to pursue compensation leaves that person open to the unchallengeable impugning of their character by the media and others’. Since the government’s unfounded view is that most individuals whose convictions are quashed are factually guilty, the media could hardly be punished for repeating such slurs.

 

The presumption of innocence is now turned on its head. The decision whether a wrongly convicted person is indubitably innocent will rest with the Secretary of State for Justice. The present incumbent Chris Grayling MP has done much to ensure that wrongful convictions will soar as a direct consequence of his savage and irrational attacks on legal aid provision. When persons are wrongly convicted, they lose livelihoods, careers and often their homes. Family and other relationships may be shattered never to be repaired.  Almost every wrongly convicted person I’ve known experienced acute psychological trauma after their release. Given its enthusiasm for denying accused persons the right to a proper defence (and hence a fair trial), it’s perhaps not surprising that the government now wants to turn its back on the victims of wrongful convictions by refusing them any recompense for their suffering when – after many years - they finally win justice in the courts.