In the News

The Stockwell Six case

Mike McCartney

13th July 2021

How is this relevant to the A Level Politics course?

I thought I had posted something on miscarriages of justice recently, but I can't find the link.

Not that this makes this any less important. If you are not familiar with the case of the Stockwell Six, the Guardian report the story:

"Three innocent black men who were jailed nearly 50 years ago over a corrupt police officer’s claims they tried to rob him have had their convictions overturned by the court of appeal."

See the full article here:

So what has this to do with the A Level course?

As a reminder of the role of the courts, here is a refresher...

How effective are judges in protecting civil liberties?

The following evidence suggests the judiciary is effective in protecting civil liberties

· Through the power of judicial review judges can declare actions by public officials/bodies ‘ultra vires’ and have been unafraid to use these powers: during Major’s government the courts found against Howard as Home Secretary ten times on a range of issues, with the most high profile case involving overturning his decision to impose a minimum sentence on the killers of James Bulger.

· Since the introduction of the Human Rights Act (1998) judges have had the power to review cases in light of the European Convention on Human Rights. Judges have used the new powers to provide citizens extra protection against civil rights abuses, in 2004, in what is probably the most high-profile rights case ever the Law Lords ruled 8-1 against the government’s indefinite detention of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh and Broadmoor prisons.

· Judges are sufficiently independent from the executive to make decisions via judicial review even when the government may not like the outcome. In the summer of 2006, Tony Blair was sufficiently outraged by a High Court decision which allowed Afghan hijackers temporary leave to remain in Britain as ‘barmy’, David Cameron raised serious concerns about the right of Abu Qatada to avoid deportation.

· The kind of bias identified by Griffith over 30 years ago may be slowly unravelling. The fact that judges are almost a homogeneous bloc of white, middle class males may not in fact affect their neutrality as shown recently by a couple of landmark divorce rulings in the early 00s.

· The appeals procedure has ensured that the right to a fair trial is upheld: in 2002 Stephen Downing was released after his conviction was declared unsafe – 27 years after his original conviction (thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British history).

· Judges can also act as a pressure group via their comments (sometimes off the record) to the media, in the House of Lords, or when summing up cases, e.g. in 2004 Lord Hoffman declared during the Belmarsh trial that the Labour government’s anti-terrorism laws were a greater threat to liberty than terrorism itself.

· The impact of the new Supreme Court, whilst still very much in its infancy, can be addressed here. A number cases have received a lot of media coverage since judges crossed Parliament Square to their new home at Middlesex Guildhall, including:

The following evidence suggests the judiciary is not effective in protecting civil liberties

· A.V. Dicey argued that alongside the sovereignty of Parliament one of the twin pillars of liberty was an independent judiciary. Whether the latter exists has been called into question. The judiciary is much more likely to rule in favour of the government as against.

· Griffith suggested that ‘These judges have by their education and training…acquired a strikingly homogeneous collection of attitudes, beliefs and principles.’

· High-profile cases of miscarriage of justice, as well as numerous other lower profile cases, have led many to lose faith in the courts.

· The impact of the Human Rights Act has not been as great as expected – the HRA has been used sparingly and in only around 1% of cases since the act came into force have the courts declared British law incompatible with the ECHR.

· Keith Ewing, writing in The Guardian, lists a number of failings of our judiciary when it comes to rights protection, arguing that “the erosion of liberty has increased, not diminished under the ‘culture of liberty’ created by the HRA; and reliance on the courts has generally not been an effective way to protect civil liberties from the power of the state.”

· We have to question whose civil liberties it is that judges are protecting by overturning large chunks of the government’s anti-terrorist legislation (via judicial review often with reference to the Human Rights Act).

· It was reported some years ago over 200 of Britain’s top judges had given ‘unduly lenient’ sentences to criminals guilty of serious offences, according to a list drawn up by the Attorney General.

· outbursts by senior judges indicate that the convention that sitting judges should keep quiet outside the courtroom has broken down.

· Continued pressure by the government and the media is putting excessive pressure on judges and jeopardising the right to a fair trial.

So we have to question whether the appeals procedure proves that the British judicial system works. Can we be sure that the kind of injustices proven by the overturn of the cases of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and so many others, like the Stockwell Six, represent the unwinding of the dark days of the kind of policing many years ago that were stereotyped in the BBC's Life on Mars. Or are there others still out there?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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