Paul Foot

Birmingham Six
Injustice seen to be done

(April 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.141, April 1991, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

YOU HAVE to go back to Cromwell to find a precedent for last month’s astonishing House of Commons motion calling for the sacking of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane. The motion, which was signed by several Tories, and former leaders of the Liberal and Labour Parties, caused a predictable uproar, but even the most ardent defenders of Lord Lane were a trifle embarrassed.

They pretended that the judges throughout the Birmingham Six case had been impartial. A glance at Mr Justice Bridge’s summing up in the first trial of the six quickly disposed of that argument. He openly bragged about his bias against the defence, and his onslaught on the unfortunate forensic expert who dared to point out that the Greiss test for explosives was riddled with doubt has become legendary.

Another glance at the summing up of the six’s appeal in January 1988 shows Lane and his two colleagues judging the case by the simple device of believing prosecution witnesses and disbelieving witnesses for the defence. The crude and offensive way in which this was done led to the ferocious counter-attack on the judges by liberal journalists like Robert Kee and Ludovic Kennedy.

The defenders of the judges were therefore driven back to their last redoubt: the ‘independence of the judiciary.’ ‘Upon this rock,’ said the Lord Chancellor, ‘rests the entire rule of law.’ This is so often accepted without argument that it is worth asking: exactly what are the judges independent from? The answer comes back that they are independent from the government.

The most formidable barriers are erected round the judges to protect them not just from the government but from society as a whole. They are paid enormous salaries, spiced with every kind of perk, from free transport to free lodgings when they are ‘out of town.’ They work a 25 hour week (at most). They don’t have to retire until 75 and even then they can come out of retirement to judge important cases in their dotage.

They are recruited exclusively from the Bar. When the Lord Chancellor recently suggested that this monopoly might be broken, he was greeted with a storm of abuse and even a judges’ strike. Lord Lane told the House of Lords that proposals to end the monopoly were the worst threat to British freedom since Hitler.

The world in which the judges live and converse is more exclusive than the most ridiculous gentleman’s club or the most secretive Masonic Lodge.

Their ‘independence’ from society and parliament thus assured, the judges remain deeply dependent and loyal to their class – those that aren’t are swiftly trained to behave as if they are. They are almost all deeply reactionary people for whom the slightest whisper of challenge or dissent – or even of an investigative solicitor – calls up phantoms of Wat Tyler.

The judges’ deep sense of class makes them quite absurdly loyal to the hierarchical system which operates under them – and particularly to the police force. It is not simply that the word of a police officer is always in their eyes preferable to the word of a citizen. It is that, in the interests of the judges’ justice, where the police go wrong it is far better to uphold the behaviour of the police than it is to expose the fact that they have gone wrong.

Lord Lane and senior judges have warned the Tory government that if they give an inch to the protesters after Birmingham and Guildford, they will be ushering in the revolution. The judges will fight to the death to preserve every inch of their ‘independence’ (irresponsibility). But wiser class warriors are urging caution. It is not a good thing for ruling class stability if everyone to the left of Bernard Levin (about 80 percent of the population) think the judges are incompetent and that police evidence is likely to be fabricated.

Nor is it healthy for their class that so many judges were involved in the long string of recent celebrated injustices. The crusted Tory Donaldson (Master of the Rolls) was deeply implicated in the Guildford Four scandal. Lane, O’Connor, Stephen Brown – the three judges who just three years ago said the Birmingham Six were obviously guilty – are all senior men.

New judges like Igor Judge and Stephen Mitchell are also implicated in injustices. Judge prosecuted the four men wrongly convicted of killing the newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater. Lane refused leave to appeal in that case, and, seven years later, his close friend Lord Justice Russell dismissed the men’s appeal despite a huge mountain of new evidence which plainly exculpated the convicted men.

A Royal Commission is a convenient way to push the boat out into still waters for several months while the argument goes on. In the interim Lane and some of his henchmen will slip quietly from the scene to be flattered and eulogised into retirement.

The Commission, which has some clout, may recommend some changes in the administration of justice to pull down some of the barriers behind which the judges have done such terrible deeds. The Bar’s monopoly may finally go. There will be a few minor reforms, as there have been, for instance, in the field of confessions.

But the aim of the reforms will not be to democratise the judiciary or to make it more responsible to the public. The ‘independence of the judiciary’ and the ‘rule of law’ will be kept firmly in the hands of the ruling class. The basic prejudices in favour of the police and against the people they arrest, especially if those arrested have in any way threatened the property rights of the rich, will be as fiercely protected as ever.

The principle behind the Royal Commission reforms will be that injustice must go on being done, but it should not be seen to be done quite so clearly.


Last updated on 30.12.2004