What is the legacy of the Birmingham Six and those other notorious miscarriages of justice from the 1970s?
Many were struck recently by the number of past Irish victims of miscarriages of justice involved in the campaign to free 24 year old east Londoner Sam Hallam.
Hallam was cleared by the court of appeal after serving seven years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
The campaign included Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, Paddy Hill, Nora and Breda Power (wife and daughter of Billy Power of the Birmingham Six), and Annie, Vincent and Patrick Maguire (www.patrickmaguireart.com)
The campaign to free Hallam was run by Paul May, who previously chaired the Birmingham Six campaign.
It has been truly remarkable to note just how many other wrongly convicted people have eventually been set free as a result partly of the efforts of those who had already suffered a similar fate.
Billy Power of the Birmingham Six has been a major force in helping clear wrongly convicted prisoners. When he came out in 1991, Billy told of two young Sri Lankan men he had got to know in Wormwood Scrubs, Prem Sivalingham and Sam Kulasingham, who he believed were innocent.
Paul May and a number of other people involved with the Birmingham Six appeal became involved in a campaign for the East Ham Two. Gareth Peirce was the solicitor. Prem and Sam were cleared by the Court of Appeal in 1994.
Billy Power also campaigned for the release of fellow Irishman Frank Johnson. He was cleared of murder in 2002, some 25 years after being convicted. Sadly, Frank died in 2008.
Paddy Hill also of the Birmingham Six has ofcourse been a redoubtable fighter for justice over the past two decades. He set up the excellent Miscarriage of Justice Organisation (MOJO) that has helped clear many innocent prisoners.
Most recently Paddy signed a petition asking for a new look to be taken into who did the original Birmingham pub bombings.
As well as the direct involvement of people involved in miscarriages of justice in helping others, another legacy of the notorious cases of the 1970s was the setting up of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
This was established in the mid-1990s, taking over the role of the Home Office in deciding whether cases should be referred back to the Court of Appeal. Some 320 of the 480 cases referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal over the past 15 years have resulted in successful appeals. The CCRC deals with around 1,000 cases a year.
There is though criticism of the CCRC. Chair of Progressing Prisoners Maintaining Innocence Bruce Kent describes the CCRC as “a monumental obstacle.” He claims that for every Sam Hallam cleared there are another four innocent prisoners left inside.
May though leaps to the defence of the CCRC which he says was exemplary in the way that it dealt with the Hallam case. May blames the previous Labour Government for many of the innocent people who reside in prison today. “New Labour seemed to hate innocent prisoners,” said May, quoting how year on year it cut the budget of the CCRC, so that it now has two thirds of the resources - £7 million - it had five years ago to investigate suspect cases.
There is no doubt more that the CCRC could be doing to free the innocent but this should not take away from those instances where it has played an important role in getting many individuals cleared of crimes which they did not commit.
There are still many innocent people in prison. MOJO once estimated it could be 1 per cent of the prison population. Given that the prison population now stands at over 87,000 this would mean today there are probably at least 850 innocent prisoners inside.
Given the efforts of some in government to slow down the process of review, by the reduction of funding, that number could be even greater.
This is a double injustice, keeping the innocent in prison, whilst those who really did the crime remain free on the outside. It is also an incredible waste of money for the tax payer.
The concern today is that despite some steps forward the situation for the innocent person in prison, who lacks a campaign of support and good legal team the chances of getting cleared remain as thin as they did all those years ago when the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were first convicted.
The reaction, that the clearance of Sam Hallam, brought in the media was a welcome sign. Back in the days of the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four, there was great media interest in miscarriages of justice. There were TV programmes like the BBCs Rough Justice devoted to the subject. The newspapers genuinely campaigned on a number of cases. However, this interest seemed to then die off.
The Hallam case seems to have revived that interest, with a realisation that miscarriages of justice are not the subject of yesteryear. The case proves, neither the police nor Crown Prosecution Service seems to have got any better at not putting away the innocent.
It must be hoped that now there will be a reawakening as to just how many innocent people remain in prison. There needs to be more funding for the CCRC and a serious look at how the police and CPS operate. And if any reminder were needed how important it is not to incarcerate the innocent then it must surely be that for every innocent person locked up there is a guilty one walking free.