Shaken system must be stirred into action

At last the Bridgewater Three are on the verge of receiving justice after 18 years in prison. The case, which has caused unease for many years, was already the subject of one appeal in 1981, with another rejected by then Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke in 1993.

This and other miscarriages of justice have shaken confidence in the criminal justice system. It is a timely reminder, when the Home Secretary Michael Howard is looking to vest more power in the police, that the forces of law and order cannot always be trusted.

While appreciating that crime must be tackled and that society needs to be protected, individuals equally need protection from the state. As the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Bridgewater Three debacles show, the Government is extremely reluctant to concede mistakes. We are assured that such miscarriages cannot occur again and that even if they do, the new Criminal Cases Review Commission will be on hand to investigate. However, there are factors which cast doubts on this premise.

One is the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 and its code of practice. The code, which emerged after the statute was enacted and is awaiting parliamentary approval, contains a dangerous clause. It states that in cases involving conviction on indictment, prosecution documents need only be retained for three years.

Considering that the rules of disclosure have been changed to give the police a key role in identifying the documents to be disclosed, this has serious implications. The CCRC, which is already charged with lack of independence, will have little to investigate if documents are shredded after three years. Indeed, under these rules, as Anthony Scrivener QC pointed out, the Bridgewater Three, Birmingham Six and Guildford Four would have remained behind bars.