Parliament members demand dismissal of Lord Chief Justice

March 19, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- More than 100 members of Parliament yesterday offered a motion calling for the firing of the Lord Chief Justice of England in the biggest legal furor this country has seen in recent times.

The uproar centers on the judge's handling of the Birmingham Six case. Last week six men were freed on appeal after having served 16 years in prison for killing 21 people in Irish Republican Army bomb attacks on two pubs in Birmingham in 1974.

Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice since 1980, headed an appeals panel that dismissed the men's claims of innocence in 1987, forcing them to remain behind bars for an additional four years.

He and two other judges refused to accept fresh testimony about police illegalities and scientific errors, the two grounds on which the men finally won their appeals.

Lord Lane's conduct during the original appeal has been condemned in particular, and a royal commission has been ordered to investigate the entire British justice system.

Chris Mullins, the member of Parliament who headed the campaign to free the six and initiated the "sack Lane" motion, said yesterday that the judge's removal would be a first step toward legal reform.

At the end of the 1987 appeal, after hearing fresh evidence that the men had been mistreated by the police and that a scientific test finding traces of explosive on the hands of one of the six had been discredited, Lord Lane observed: "The longer this hearing has gone on, the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct."

He dismissed himself from hearing the second appeal last week when three other judges ordered the men's immediate release, freeing them to seek compensation for their years of wrongful imprisonment.

The British judiciary is noted for its political independence. Senior judges can be removed only by the monarch in response to a motion from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

A House of Commons official said yesterday that there was no record of the removal of a Lord Chief Justice at Parliament's behest but that one judge was unseated in the 18th century.

Yesterday's House of Commons motion is unlikely to set a precedent, but it reflects the mounting pressure on Lord Lane, 72, to retire. He can serve until he is 75.

Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the opposition Labor Party, stopped short of calling for Lord Lane's dismissal but commented: "Were I in his position, I would think over very carefully what I ought to do now. I would feel my position was untenable."

One of the six, Richard McIlkenny, said yesterday: "Lord Lane came out with the wrong decision and he seemed to have a lot of bitterness in him at the time. But I have always said it was not a judicial decision. It was a political decision. He was chosen to give it."

The Lord Chief Justice is the second highest officer of the English judiciary after the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, has expressed "fullest confidence" in Lord Lane's "integrity and judicial qualities."

A former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, said on BBC television yesterday that the attempt to remove the chief justice was "wholly unconstitutional," adding: "Lord Lane was giving the judgment of the court, not only his personal judgment."

The impact of the Birmingham Six case was heightened by the earlier successful appeal of the Guildford Four, four other Irish suspects wrongfully accused of another bombing attack during the IRA's 1970s terror campaign on England.

The two cases have put the judicial system under intense scrutiny. They have also put the police under threat of criminal prosecution and have led to the acknowledgment that the real bombers remain free.

"But they have done something much worse, something that no amount of IRA atrocities could have achieved" wrote Sunday Times political commentator Robert Harris. "They have undermined the faith of millions at home and abroad in British justice. The IRA did not do it; the police and judges did."

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