Reformers have called for new safeguards to ensure that people who are wrongfully put into prison are quickly released.
One of the central principles of the legal system in England and Wales is that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But legal reformers say that the time it will have taken for the case of the “Birmingham Six” to return to the Court of Appeal raises doubts about whether this principle is being upheld.
In particular, reformers argue that changes are needed in the judicial system (the system by which the courts rule on individual cases) to ensure that people who are wrongfully put in prison are quickly released.
Inserious criminal cases, such as that of the Birmingham Six, the decision on whether the accused are innocent or guilty rests with the 12 men and women of the Jury. They have to be convinced “beyond all reasonable doubt” (or certain) that the accused is guilty. Otherwise they must find him or her innocent.
It is, of course, possible for the Jury to make a mistake. Some guilty people are found innocent and released. But it is a fundamental principle of law in England and Wales that people can never be prosecuted for the same crime twice, even if it is later proved that they were in fact guilty. This is to ensure that people are not constantly brought back for retrial.
Equally, innocent people can sometimes be found guilty. Four people known as the "Guildford Four" – were wrongfully convicted of IRA bombings in Guildford, Surrey, in 1974. The four were released in 1980 after their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal.
People who want to appeal against a conviction can do so to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal. The Home Secretary can also refer cases to this court.
Tî succeed, an appeal must usually either produce new evidence to support the innocence of the convicted person, or show that a legal irregularity or mistake took place during the original trial (if, for example, a judge presses a jury into giving a verdict too quickly). An appeal cannot be argued on the simple ground that a jury made the wrong decision, because the basis on which the jury reached its verdict is never revealed.
Some senior lawyers have criticised the system of appeals for failing to correct cases in which someone is wrongfully convicted (called “miscarriages of justice”). These critics say that the judges take too limited a view of their role and that they should be more willing to hear new evidence unearthed since the original trial.
Some lawyers believe that an entirely new system is needed to ensure that alleged miscarriages of justice are speedily corrected. Some barristers believe that a hearing in the Court of Appeal is not the most suitable method for finding out the truth because it can only consider the evidence which it is shown. It cannot conduct its own investigations. A new body should be set up specifically to search for new evidence in such disputed cases. The body would consist of professionals such as lawyers, academics and judges. The Court of Appeal is incapable of determining whether the jury verdict was inconsistent with the true facts. There needs to be a panel of independent experts. Some reformers say that an independent review body, with senior lawyers sitting on it, should be set up specifically to consider verdicts, which appear to be unsafe.