Making a miscarriage of justice?

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 3Law and Order


A number of recent documentaries and podcasts have sparked the public’s imagination around miscarriages of justice. Television shows like Making a Murderer and podcasts like US true-crime story Serial have got people talking about the state of the US justice system.  In the UK, miscarriages of justice still occur.  Sam Hallam, one of the youngest victims of a UK miscarriage of justice in 2012, was recently released from prison after an appeal court quashed his conviction for murder.  Many still remember the Guildford Four and the Bridgewater Four as landmarks in the British justice system that brought the potential for miscarriages of justice to public attention. Now in the context of reduced legal representation due to cuts in the legal aid budget, at the same time as the doubling of the prison population in the past 20 years, miscarriages of justice are very much a live issue.

It is, of course, difficult to quantify the numbers affected by a disputed concept such as ‘wrongful conviction’. At the time of the Royal Commission in the early 1990s, it was suggested that between two per cent and 17 per cent of UK convictions were ‘problematic’.  At the lowest estimate, based on the prison population at that time, that would have been about 800 people wrongfully in prison. Now the risk of wrongful conviction is arguably increasing.  There is rarely any fuss made when long-standing rights of defendants are watered down.  Recent decades has seen the rise of a more ‘victim centred’ justice system, in which the position of the defendant is becoming increasingly sidelined. An obsession with conviction rates and driving down crime can often make the danger of sending an innocent person to prison seem secondary to the need to prosecute harshly.

This raises important questions about what we want from the justice system.  Is it still better, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, that 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person suffer? Or are miscarriages of justice an inevitable part of any justice system?  How should we square the rights of victims with the rights of defendants?  Should we be doing more to prevent miscarriages of justice or are we too lenient with defendants in the justice system?