Lord Lane - the Lord Chief Justice 1980 - 92

Most prisoners who claimed to be victims of miscarriage of justice during the eighties had reason to hate Lord Lane.

But should we have sympathy for this short, quiet-spoken, even reformist judge, even though he dismissed appeals without a thought about justice, and abused the powers of his office beyond belief?

History dealt Lord Lane a bad hand. During his period in office he was hit by two major problems for which his background and judicial education left him totally unprepared. On the one hand the many mistakes and corrupt practices in the police forces around the country were resulting in a large number of miscarriage of justice cases. Publicity of these in programmes such as "Rough Justice" threatened, as Lord Denning said, to tear down the fabric of the nation's judicial system.

On the other hand. Lord Lane saw in Margaret Thatcher's moves to reform the system of justice, the most serious threat to the independence of the judiciary since the seventeenth century.

He was caught in a vice - and from time to time he squealed. He did not like television. He did not like journalists. He was against allowing cameras into the Courts and never gave interviews. This may have stemmed from the fact that he had been the junior counsel prosecuting James Hanratty for murder. In 1962, Hanratty was hung and the press never let the system forget it. Over the years masses of evidence has been produced to suggest there was a serious miscarriage of justice - perpetrated in part by young Geoffrey Lane.

Lord Lane's most famous remarks live with him in his retirement. When he dismissed the appeal of the Birmingham Six in 1988, Lord Lane and his fellow judges said "the longer this hearing goes on, the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct". The Birmingham Six were released nevertheless - and there were calls for Lord Lane's resignation. Critics said he tended to misjudge new evidence.

A typical example of this came up in the appeal of Anthony Mycock - the appeal at which Lord Lane determined to kill off Peter Hill and Martin Young and the whole "Rough Justice" programme.

Lord Lane's bouts of fury were also turned upon the government. He tirelessly defended the Bar Association. He campaigned vigorously against the Thatcher government's plans to abolish some of the legal profession's restrictive practices. Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, felt the wrath of Lane. During the House of Lords debate on this bill, Lord Lane said " if those responsible for drafting the paper on the organisation of the profession had seen fit to consult the judges.. before proposing to disembowel the system.."

Strong words - but Lord Mackay simply published a letter to him from Lord Lane in which the noble judge specifically asked that he should not be consulted.

This debate also provided another fitting quotation from this enigmatic judge. He said " Oppression does not stand on the doorstep with a toothbrush moustache and a swastika armband.. it creeps up insidiously, step by step, until all of a sudden the unfortunate citizens realise freedom has gone."

He was clearly referring to the Thatcher government - and the phrase was the final nail in his coffin.

However, it was to Lord Lane that many unfortunate citizens looked when their freedom was unjustly taken from them - and they got little sympathy from him.

Ernie Clarke, for example. He was a black man who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime he clearly had not done. Lord Lane did not take this case himself. - he assigned his friend Lord Justice Lawton to it. Lord Lawton had been a blackshirt in the thirties and held strong views on justice......

Lord Lane made many enemies. He appeared increasingly beleaguered as he moved towards the judicial retirement age of seventy-five. But he was determined to show the world that an independent judiciary was not to be pushed around by politicians and the press. The collective sigh of relief that could be heard when he went - and Lord Taylor took over - demonstrated that Lord Lane had actually brought the Court of Appeal into disrepute - far more than the journalists and solicitors who worked on miscarriage of justice cases.

Anthony Steel's first appeal came up before Lord Lane because of the intricacy of the argument about who had actually killed Carol Wilkinson - remember a doctor turned off the life support machine and she then died.

One of the more interesting parts of the appeal concerned a quotation from the judge at the trial. The judge referred to the fact that Steel denied the truth of the "confession". The trial judge told the jury:

"It is right to say that if what he says is true, well then there has been a most shocking and cynical conspiracy against him, a dreadful thing. .... It is said that those six policemen, or at least some of them, have banded together to extract from a false statement which amounts to an admission of a most serious crime."

This, Steel's lawyers said, was a clear indication that the jury should find Steel's story about the police conduct unbelievable - because the conduct he described was so illegal as to be incredible.

At Steel's appeal Lord Lane would have none of that. He was the policeman's friend, particularly in miscarriage of justice cases. In 1966 he had represented the Metropolitan Police in the inquiry into the wrongful execution of Timothy Evans. This was another classic case of miscarriage of justice - when the police had completely failed to spot the obvious , that Christie was the murderer and Evans, the simple-minded tool. Since then he had manfully defended the police at every turn - particularly when their reputation was sullied by evidence in the Court of Appeal.

Steel's case was a confession case. He was interrogated over 36 hours. He kept asking for a solicitor. He signed a confession because he was promised a solicitor if he did so. Even after the signed confession - when there was enough to charge him - the police continued to interrogate him. All without allowing him a solicitor.

He would have got little sympathy for his plight from Lord Lane. In R. v. Alladice, Lord Lane said that even if access to a solicitor had been unlawfully denied, this was not, in itself, enough to make a confession inadmissible in court. This, and another such pronouncement a few months later, effectively removed the main sanction against police officers who break the law - the threat that illegally obtained evidence will not be heard by a jury.

If you wish to learn more about Lord Lane, click here where you can download a long report on a scandalous affair.

This is the story of how the Lord Chief Chief Justice Lord Lane in 1985 used foul means in an attempt to stop a campaigning BBC programme series and the scandalous manner in which the BBC responded.

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