‘Whoever planted the bombs in Birmingham… also planted a bomb under the British legal establishment,’ (March 1991). So wrote author Robert Harris following the spectacular release of the six innocent men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings.

As I have discovered over the years, however, it would take more than a few quashed convictions to penetrate the armour-plated complacency which used to afflict many of those in the upper reaches of the British legal establishment.

No sooner had the convictions been quashed than a whispering campaign began. The gist of it was, ‘Okay, maybe the confessions were rigged, maybe the scientists did soup up the forensic evidence, but we know they did it.’ I lost count of the number of people who said to me in the years following the collapse of the case against the Birmingham Six, ‘I had dinner with Lord Justice So-and-So last night and you should hear what he is saying about the Birmingham case.’ One or two even said it to my face. For years afterwards you could hear these sentiments wherever two or three senior lawyers were gathered.

Lord Bridge, the trial judge who died in 2007, went to his grave purportedly uneasy about the miscarriage of justice but not the part he played in it. His conduct, which involved frequent interventions on behalf the prosecution, was even criticised by the court in the first appeal of 1976. As to Lord Lane, who presided over the 1988 appeal, I sat through almost all of the appeal hearing and witnessed at first hand his demeanour in court and sarcastic interventions. ‘The longer this hearing has gone on,’ he said, ‘the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct.’ The very next day The Times published an article headed ‘Three Unwise Judges’.

‘Do you know this man Mullin?’ another extremely senior lawyer inquired of a mutual friend. ‘Is he a communist seeking to undermine confidence in our legal system?’ It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

It wasn’t just the Birmingham case. Much the same was said after the collapse in 1989 of the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombing convictions. I even heard it after the quashing in 1997 of the convictions of four men jailed in 1979 for murdering the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater. One has to pinch oneself to recall how bad it was. I would say that, in the old days, the Criminal Court of Appeal consisted of some of the most closed minds in the land. The 1969 Luton Post Office killing case was referred back five times by successive Home Secretaries, but still the judges wouldn’t budge. In the end the Home Secretary of the day, William Whitelaw, became so exasperated that in 1980 he simply ordered that the convicted men be released. Their convictions were finally quashed by the appeal court at the sixth attempt in 2003, after both men had passed away.

In all of these cases the police were in denial too, though they had rather more to hide. When in 1993 a sympathetic judge kicked out the case against some of the officers allegedly responsible for the Guildford and Woolwich convictions, the news was reportedly greeted with a standing ovation by delegates at the annual conference of the Police Federation.

There is a danger of forgetting just how awful it was. 1974 was the low point. It was the year of some of the biggest IRA bombings on the British mainland: the M62 coach bombing, the pubs at Guildford and Woolwich and, of course, the Birmingham pub bombs in which 21 people died and the best part of 200 others suffered injuries, many of them life-changing. In each case innocent people were convicted – a total of 18 in all – and it took a struggle lasting many years to clear their names.

One of the problems with putting away the wrong people, of course, is that the real culprits often carry on exactly as before. The IRA unit, who were captured after the siege of Balcombe Street in 1975 and confessed to the Guildford and Woolwich bombings, remained at liberty for another year during which they carried out many more bombings and shootings. I interviewed many of those who were active in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign. One of the four men responsible for the Birmingham bombings went on, I discovered, to become deputy head of the IRA’s England department in which capacity he would have played a part in much of the subsequent terrorism on the British mainland.

What has changed since the disasters of the ‘70s and ‘80s? The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which requires police interviews to be recorded and witnessed, makes it difficult for confessions to be fabricated in the way that they were in the not-too-distant past. Extraordinary to think that we once hanged people – Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley – on the basis of uncorroborated and unrecorded police statements.

The pool from which judges are drawn, though still narrow, is now considerably wider than it used to be, thanks in part to reform of the judicial appointments process – though it was vigorously resisted at the time by some vested interests. Also, one would like to think, past disasters have made the most senior judges rather less gullible than they once were.

Although the disclosure rules have been tightened, the habit of losing evidence inconvenient to the prosecution case is still sometimes an issue – witness the current Post Office scandal.

Advances in forensic science, the discovery of DNA, the widespread use of surveillance cameras (though to some a mixed blessing) have also improved the quality of investigations.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, set up in the wake of the collapse of the Birmingham convictions, for all that has been much criticised and in recent years starved of resources, has made a difference. About 500 convictions have been quashed as a result of its efforts. I do sometimes worry, though, that its relationship with the Court of Appeal is a little too cosy.

Despite all this, however, one can just about imagine a scenario involving serious terrorist incident triggering a wave of public hysteria, fanned by an irresponsible tabloid media, leading to the conviction of innocent people. At the time of writing there are several people, serving long prison sentences, whose convictions hang by the slenderest thread.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the pub bombings and even now it is still unresolved. To mark the occasion Monoray, an imprint of Hachette, is publishing an updated version of my book on the case, Error of Judgement. Among other things it describes how I tracked down and interviewed all four of the actual bombers, two of whom are still alive. I would like to think it is required reading for students of criminal justice and, who knows, perhaps for some of those higher up the judicial pecking order.

At one level it is the story of a nightmare that overtook the lives of six unfortunate men and their families, but it is also a story of hope. An account of how it is possible, in the teeth of great odds, for a just cause to triumph. 

Error of Judgement – The Truth About the Birmingham Bombingsby Chris Mullin (Monoray: February 2024), £10.99