Miscarriages of Justice in the UK – Supreme Court Decision *Updated*

Today the Supreme Court of the UK is due to give its ruling in the landmark case of MacCartney, McDermott and Adams discussed on this blog previously. At the centre of this case is the meaning of the term miscarriage of justice and whether it is limited to cases where a person can prove their innocence. In Ireland the courts have adopted a wide definition of the term, stating that where there has been a grave defect in the administration of the justice (which could be interpreted as very serious wrongdoing on the part of the State), this could amount to a miscarriage of justice. The UK Court of Appeal has however, been reticent to take a similar line.

In each of these cases the appellant is not in a position to prove their innocence (as is exceptionally difficult to do for any appellant) but there are serious concerns as to how the investigation and trials were conducted. In McCartney and McDermott’s cases there are allegations of police brutality and in Adams’s case the defence counsel failed to adduce evidence which could have changed the outcome. Should the Supreme Court decide today that the term miscarriage of justice is not just about innocence of a crime, then it is likely that each of these men will have their case declared a miscarriage of justice.

I for one certainly hope that the  broader definition is adopted. Practically speaking a requirement of proof of innocence sets the bar so high that even those it is those it is intended to include (innocent persons) will regularly fail. But how we define this term says a lot of how we conceive of justice, an issue recently discussed here by Fiona. If we believe in due process and human rights, we should strongly condemn convictions which are reached by actions on the part of the State which are in clear violation of the most fundamental rights. They do not equate with justice. The term miscarriage of justice is the most serious censure of the investigation and trial process; deliberate and conscious violations of fundamental rights by state agents should be deemed to merit that censure.

Practically speaking the obvious implication of today’s decision will be that if the cases of these men are considered to be miscarriages of justice they will be entitled to compensation in line with the ECHR. Indeed the BBC refers to it as the ‘compensation case’. However for these men and dozens if not hundreds of others, the money will have little meaning for them. To have their case called a miscarriage of justice will mean so much more than that. It will mean a declaration by the highest court in the land that justice was not done to them, that they should not have endured what they did endure. It is very difficult to say how the Supreme Court will rule but the decision will, either way, be a defining statement as to the court’s conception of justice, rights and due process.

Update – The judgment has been given and McCartney and McDermott have suceeded in their appeals. The Supreme Court has laid down a new definition of miscarriage of justice: A new or newly discovered fact will show conclusively that a miscarriage of justice has occured when it so undermines the evidence against the defendant that no conviction could possibly be based upon it.”

Mr Adams failed to meet the standard. The judgment is available here and further analysis will be given in the coming days.