Dealing with the Past. Call for at least 300 “miscarriages of justice” to be reviewed


A new article in the November edition of the Modern Law Review by Hannah Quirk (£), describes an approach quite different from that of the historians of Arkiv.

The article explores the “neglected” area of miscarriages of justice and suggests these may be much more extensive than previously realised. The level of appeals for wrongful convictions was low but is not a reliable indicator of justice served. Ms Quirk quotes a figure of  at least 300 such cases which could be reviewed.

The article  calls for Northern Ireland to have its own criminal cases review body separate from the UK body which currently refers cases to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.

The article identifies the NI courts as “the one that got away” from the process of  scrutinising  and  reforming institutions under the GFA. But it favourably  contrasts the rulings of the Court of Appeal today with its  approach during the Troubles.  In recent years NICA has ruled on referrals to it  by the UK wide Criminal Cases Review Commission and  has quashed a number of convictions as “unsafe,” even if the appellants appear to have been factually guilty.

. The analysis of the Diplock Courts system will be familiar. It is not wholly critical and discusses in my view fairly reasonably the incredibly difficult situations facing the administration of justice at the time.

The article is clearly informed by the Irish Centre on Wrongful Convictions set up  in 2012. to assist individuals in submitting applications to the CCRC; to campaign for changes to how these cases are investigated; “and to campaign for ‘an independent inquiry into police brutality and judicial malpractice during the civil conflict”. This group clearly has access to the justice system. It’s led by Jim McVeigh, Sinn Fein’s leader on Belfast City Council, and the last IRA jail leader in the Maze. He explained the purpose of the centre to Brian Rowan in last October.

.“Its purpose will be to work with prisoners – all prisoners or former prisoners – who feel they’ve been the victim of a miscarriage of justice,” McVeigh said.

He revealed that a number of loyalists have already brought cases to the attention of the new project.

“Anybody who has been in prison knows from their own personal experience that there are many, many people who were in prison who were innocent,” McVeigh continued.

“There may well be thousands of people who were the victim of a miscarriage of justice and up until probably recent years they’ve had no opportunity to address those historic injustices,” he said.

McVeigh said there will be a particular focus on convictions that relied on statement evidence alone.

“We want to highlight the fact that brutality was systematic, was endemic and that draws a question over the safety of these convictions, particularly people who were convicted on statement evidence alone,” McVeigh said.

Extract from the article:

 Despite the vast transitional justice scholarship relating to prisoner release, amnesties and prosecutions when conflicts end, there is a significant gap in practice and academic literature regarding wrongful convictions. Uniquely amongst post-conflict societies, Northern Ireland has a body for investigating miscarriages of justice, albeit one designed for ‘ordinary’ appeals. In the absence of a formal truth-recovery process, criminal appeals are becoming a proxy for addressing the role of the state during ‘The Troubles,’ as well as remedying individual injustices. This article examines the approach of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal during the conflict. It charts the developments in its decision-making following the cease-fires and the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It concludes that the current system is unsatisfactory as it ignores the effects of the conflict on the appeal process and offers no insights into the role of the Court during the conflict.

The author calls for  a “special category” appeal procedure to take a wider view of applications  for miscarriages of justice. Under the present these stand at about 300 cases .

 The Irish Centre on Wrongful Convictions wants the CCRC to establish an office in Northern Ireland, funded by the Northern Ireland Executive through the Department of Justice.  If this suggestion were accepted, the enabling legislation could consider giving the Northern Ireland body enhanced or extended powers to investigate appeals in a broader context.”

It’s clear therefore that some legal campaigners want to pursue a more legally activist approach to dealing with the past than the British government has supported so far.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London