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What are miscarriages of justice? And do they occur within the UK’s justice system?

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Despite being described as one of the best justice systems in the world, which strives for integrity and equality, the UK’s criminal justice system has flaws and miscarriages of justice still occur. A ‘miscarriage of justice’ is when someone is convicted of a crime that they didn’t commit – a wrongful conviction. 

There have been a number of notorious miscarriages of justice in the UK, including (to name just a few) the:

  • Guildford Four;
  • Birmingham Six; and
  • Maguire Seven.

The Guildford Four

In 1975, four Irish men were wrongly convicted of carrying out bombings in Guildford on behalf of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), which resulted in the death of five people. The convictions were based on confessions extracted through violence by the police, and the men spent 14 years in prison before their convictions were overturned in 1989.

The Birmingham Six

The Birmingham Six remains one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in the British justice system. In 1975, six men were convicted of bombing two pubs in Birmingham, which resulted in the deaths of 21 people. However, it was later discovered that the convicted men had been coerced into making false confessions and the evidence used against them was unreliable.

After serving 16 years in prison, the convictions were overturned in 1991 and the men were released. Following this case, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (also known as the Runciman Commission) was set up to consider whether the current system for investigating miscarriages of justice was adequate.

In 1993, the Commission published its report, determining that the current system was inadequate and that a body independent of the government and the courts should be set up to investigate potential miscarriages of justice. Hence, an independent body was set up through section 8 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 – this body’s now known as the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

What’s the role of the CCRC?

The role of the CCRC is to consider and investigate potential miscarriages of justice and refer cases back to the Court of Appeal where it believes a miscarriage of justice has occurred. In the case of R v Nunn, the UK Supreme Court stated that the CCRC acts as a ‘safety net’ when individuals have exhausted all other appeal routes but still believe they’ve suffered a miscarriage of justice.

Individuals must apply to the CCRC after exhausting other routes of appeal, such as through the Court of Appeal. The CCRC has special investigatory powers, so it can examine cases of potential miscarriages of justice. If, after its investigations, it believes there’s a ‘real possibility’ that an individual has suffered a miscarriage of justice and their conviction may be unsafe, it’ll refer cases back to the Court of Appeal.

Do miscarriages of justice still occur?

Many associate miscarriages of justice occur as a result of faulty forensics or DNA evidence. However, not all miscarriages of justice are a result of such errors. In many cases, they result from systemic failures, bias or corruption within the criminal justice system itself. Despite there being greater safeguarding measures in place – with the creation of the CCRC and significant duties being imposed on the police since the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 – these aren’t always effective in preventing miscarriages of justice.

The criminal justice system is a system operated by people and as such, is subject to bias (unconscious and conscious) and human error.  

Miscarriages of justice still occur, with a current example being the recent Post Office scandal, but it’s important to ensure that the justice system remains fair, just and transparent to prevent wrongful convictions. Thanks to the work of initiatives such as the Innocence Project, various campaigns and the media, miscarriages of justice don’t go unseen by the public.  People continue to call for reform in the criminal justice system to combat the failings that cause miscarriages of justice.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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