Justice's 40-year fight for human rights

The Justice law reform group has spent 40 years battling against miscarriages of justice and for decent human rights standards. Anne Owers looks ahead to the next phase

Justice was founded in 1957, when an all-party group of lawyers went to observe the treason trials in South Africa and Hungary. Both those countries now have democratic constitutions and formal mechanisms for protecting human rights. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Justice is celebrating its 40th anniversary at a time when the UK, too, is undergoing a major process of constitutional change which will fundamentally affect our democratic and legal processes.

Over those 40 years, Justice has pursued three main areas of work. First, it is well-known for the pioneering work done on individual miscarriages of justice and the systematic problems which have caused such miscarriages: unsafe confession evidence, faulty forensic techniques, failure to disclose key prosecution material. A phase of work is now coming to an end, with the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has the resources to deal with a large volume of cases.

Justice's much more slender resources can therefore be used more strategically. It will be taking on fewer cases, but will also be monitoring the work and effectiveness of the commission, providing information and training to those taking cases to it, and examining the effect of recent changes in criminal law (for example the new disclosure provisions).

In addition, it is able to do more proactive work: one of its main current projects is work on intelligence-led policing (including a range of new surveillance techniques), to consider the safeguards and accountability structures this requires.

The organisation's second area of work has been law reform generally. Justice has been able to suggest alternative means of settling disputes. The appointment of an Ombudsman resulted from an early Justice report, with the responsibility of looking at ways in which legal process can be made more effective and more accessible.

This will continue to be a key area of work. Justice is setting up a major project on youth justice, which will run alongside government proposals for a fundamental reform of that system.

A report on asylum procedures, produced jointly with the Immigration Law Practitioner Association, will put forward recommendations for fairer and more effective ways of determining asylum claims.

Justice's third area of work, the implementation of human rights standards, will of course be particularly crucial over the next year or two. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, for which Justice and many others have been campaigning for many years, will have implications both for the scrutiny of legislation and for the work of courts and tribunal.

The exact form of incorporation is not yet clear. But what is clear is that Parliament will need to be properly informed about the human rights implications of all legislation – criminal and civil – and judges at all levels, from tribunals to the High Court, will need to be aware of, and take into account the requirements of, the convention and its relationship with other relevant human rights instruments and standards.

Justice will be one of a number of key legal human rights groups seeking to ensure that the form and implementation of incorporation provides accessible remedies for citizens. Its 40th anniversary is a chance to consolidate and expand this work. It is holding a series of lectures, Agenda for change, with leading lawyers from the UK and other countries reflecting on the consequences of incorporating human rights, while the anniversary exhibition entitled What is Justice? will be touring around Britain throughout the year. In addition it has a full programme of conferences and events.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, who launched the anniversary exhibition, stressed that it is "not a goal, but a staging post". During the next exciting stage, Justice will need the support of those who share its commitment to securing and safeguarding justice.

For details of membership and lectures, seminars and publications, please contact Lib Peck at Justice, 59 Carter Lane, London EC4V 5AQ.