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Police Powers and the Miscarriages of Justice

Updated on September 27, 2011


It is long understood that every one has their rights as stated in the Human Rights Act 1998. If there are to be any individual or group of individuals to commit a crime(s), the police forces must be able to detect and arrest the criminal(s). The question is how effective is this system? Have the police forces always done a good job?

Therefore, this article revolves around two main things :

  1. PACE Act 1984
  2. Effectiveness : Degree of protection on individual rights

PACE Act 1984

Before 1984, suspects had their rights to remain silent. This was very logical because if the State was to charge an individual or individuals, the State must be able to bring in adequate evidence against them. It's irrational to arrest a suspect and ask the suspect to give evidence to prosecute himself. However, as time passed, the Parliament felt that too much rights had been given to the suspects to the extent that criminal cases are on the rise. Alternatively, in order to close such an amount of cases, the police forces often abused their powers and thus failed to bring justice to the victims. Instead, many innocent individuals were wrongly convicted. Therefore, the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984 was enacted to govern the police powers and to bring in a deliberate balance between protection of the society and the protection of rights of the people.

Some of the Police Powers

Stop and Search!
Provision : Section 1 of PACE Act
Details : Power to stop and search individuals and vehicles in a public place.
Safeguards : 1) Provide name and station
2) State the reason for the search
Related case : Osman v DPP (1999)

Road Checks!
Provision : Section 4 of PACE Act
Details : Authorizes a road check to be made where a serious offence had been committed within that particular area.

Search of Premises!
This can be done in two ways :

  • With permission
  • Without permission

With permission
The consent must be given in writing and if withdrawn at any time, the police must stop the search and leave the premise.

Without permission
Done in three ways:

  • A warrant issued by the Magistrate.
  • To arrest a person named in the arrest warrant.
  • An arrest-relating evidence is believed to be found in the premise.

General rule : 24 hours
Further detention : 12hours (only with the permission of a senior officer)
Serious offence : Maximum of 96 hours
Terrorism cases : Detention of 14 days and can be extended to a maximum of 28 days

Other police powers!

  • Powers of arrest - Arrest for breach of peace, arrest with a warrant
  • Right to search an arrested person

Rights of Individuals

There are two main rights in these cases. They are :

Right to Silence!
Provision : ss34 - 39 of Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
Details : Defendants can remain silent and refuse to answer any questions. However, inferences can be made as to the why the defendants refused to answer the questions.

Right to Legal Advice!
Provision : s58 of PACE Act 1984
Details : May obtain legal advice from self-employed solicitor or the system of duty's solicitor.

Rules of Confession!
There are two types of confessions - voluntary and involuntary. If the confession is voluntary, then it may be used by the judge as an evidence against the defendant. If it is NOT voluntary - where the confession was made due to something said (threat) or done (torture)- then the confession is not admissible.

Effectiveness - Degree of Protection on Individual Rights

To compare the PACE Act 1984, cases before and after 1985 -as the Act only took effect one year later- therefore have to be analysed.

Timothy Evans when arrested
Timothy Evans when arrested

Before 1985!

There were extremely a lot of cases where justice is not done mainly because the police had not done their job well enough. Not only did they took their responsibilities lightly, they even went to the extent of abusing their powers just to close cases. Below are examples to a few miscarriages of justice that happened.

Timothy Evans (1949)
His wife and young daughter was killed and his co-tenant, John Christie was the chief witness against Evan. The police accepted all the statements as facts and also concocted false confessions from Evan to justify their accusations against him. Evan was convicted and hanged in 1950. 15 years later, an official inquiry found out that John Christie was a serial killer and was responsible for the murder of Evan's wife and daughter and his own wife.


  1. Evan's rights were infringed. His right to a fair trial was denied as the police concocted confessions and accepted all statements from the murderer as facts against him. Consequently, he was denied his right to life.
  2. Justice was done very ineffectively. Can you imagine how Evan must have felt when he lost both his dearest ones and still be convicted of the murder? He was convicted even when the evidence were not clear. Of course justice was done (as Christie was finally caught) but the system took away the victims' father/husband -who was the most innocent individual which felt most sorrow and pain - and let the criminal be free till some 15 years later.

Stephen Downing (1973) - Bakewell Tart murder
Stephen was a 17 year old boy with the reading age of 11 as he was a gardener in a churchyard. One morning, he found a woman (Wendy Sewell) with blood all over her body and clothes and immediately called the police and ambulance. As Stephen was the last person who saw the girl, he was suspected and consequently made to sign a confession that he was unable to read and thought it was a document to obtain legal advice from a solicitor. He spent 27 years in prison and was finally released on bail on 2001, pending an appeal. His conviction was finally overturned in January 2002 and Stephen was paid £750,000 as compensation.


  1. Stephen's right to a fair trial was denied as he was tricked by the police to sign a confession he was unable to read. Worse, that could still be an evidence against him.
  2. He was also denied his right to legal advice as he was made to 'confess' before he received advice from a solicitor.
  3. His right to liberty was of course denied for 27 years. Although he was compensated £750,000, was that able to adequately compensate 27 years of his life?
    The answer is obvious. In fact, nothing could possibly replace that.

Guildford Four and Maguire Seven
They were convicted in 1974 and 1976 for planting bombs in various pubs in Guildford and Woolwich. Their conviction was made mainly throught their 'confessions'. They were actually tortured and threaten to confess. In 1989 and 1991, their convictions were quashed.


  1. Again, right to a fair trial was denied. The confession should be invalid but was used against them.
  2. Freedom from torture was not upheld. They were tortured and threaten to make a confession.
  3. Right to liberty was denied for 15 years.

*There are still hundreds of such cases that happened. These were just three of them.

*It was argued that these rights were not recognized at those times. Yes, but when the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, we can see that in some cases, those who seek justice was treated below human. They did not receive the rights that every human deserve.

The Cardiff Newsagent Three
The Cardiff Newsagent Three

After 1985!

This is when the PACE Act started taking effects. However, there are still miscarriages of justice happening. Below includes a few examples :

The Cardiff Newsagent Three (1987)
Michael O'Brien, Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood were wrongly convicted for the murder of a newsagent, Philips Saunders in 1987. It was argued that the police fabricated evidence against them and suppressed materials that could have exonerated them. They spent 11 years in jail before the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction. They were paid a six figure compensation but the South Wales Police refuse to apologize.


  1. It was already two years after the PACE Act was passed but there are still such a miscarriage of justice which had wrongly imprisoned innocent citizens for more than a decade.
  2. The issue of fabricating and suppressing certain evidence still remains unclear but it was obvious that the South Wales Police do not admit fault even when they have denied three men 11 years of their liberty.

Colin Stagg (1992)
Colin Stagg was wrongly convicted for the murder of Rachel Nickell murder case on Wimbledon Common, London in 1992. He was released in 1994 as the police used a 'honey trap' to encourage him to confess. Although Colin was only imprisoned for two years, he was still once a suspect for murdering. With such a label placed on him, he was unemployable and shunned until the year of 2008 where the real killer was convicted.


  1. The PACE Act has not show a significant effect in preventing the police from using unlawful tactics to make defendants confess. Although it does not allow involuntary confession to be made as an evidence, it cannot truly prevent injustice, it can only cure. Therefore, in this case, Colin was still imprisoned and the weightage of such a suspect ruined 14 years of his life.
  2. There should be an improvement on checking the validity of a confession before it is used against a defendant.

Sally Clark
Sally Clark

Sally Clark (1996)
Sally was convicted of murdering her two small sons in 1996, and spent three years in jail. The convictions were solely based on the analysis of deaths by the Home Office Pathologist which failed to disclose a relevant information. Although she was released, she could not forget the incident and became highly independent on alcohol. Consequently, she died of alcohol poisoning in 2007.


  1. Evidence were solely based on the findings of pathologist which were not thorough and was arguable that she might not be the killer. The justice system should not convict someone when there are still uncertainties. Therefore, more aspects should be inspected and convict the defendant only when the evidences are clear enough.
  2. A miscarriage of justice -although just a few years of imprisonment- can lead to other more serious repercussions, in this case, death.


The PACE Act do bring certain advantages to the justice system by outlining - and hence making it clear- the police powers and rights of the defendants. Although the number of cases where justice was not done had arguably reduced, it is still not effective enough due to two reasons.

First, the system at times can only rectify a mistaken situation, it cannot prevent. By taking the case of Sally Clark or Colin Stagg, they were wrongly convicted but the changes introduced by the PACE Act was able to release them few years later. However, as the system is only able to cure and not prevent, both of them suffer serious repercussions - Colin suffered for 14 years of his life, and Sally died.

Alternatively, the rising amount of miscarriages of justice fails to provide the sense of security needed by the general public. One day a person's family members of might be murdered and the next thing that adds to his sorrow is that he was charged for that murder.

So What Do You Think?

Is our criminal justice system effective?

See results


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    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 

      2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      This was a very good article. There are plenty of miscarriages of justice by our court system, but I think with the DNA police do a better job.

    • frozenink profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thank you for your appreciation, Patrick. Sorry for the 2-week late reply.

      I will check the website you offered now. Cheers

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      As a volunteer admin on a campaign for MOJ sites I often surf the web for insightful articles. This is a very well presented article. I would appreciate it if you could check out site below and offer some useful tips or even better send us an article we can publish.


    • frozenink profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Thanks for reading, Gadders. Basically this piece of article is an analysis on cases where miscarriages of justice occurred. The analysis is my opinion. Whereas the references or the links for the cases are included with the headings of each individual cases. The links that have been included are mostly wiki links because the original website that I used are only accessible by the members thereof.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Can you give me a reference that you based this article on?

    • frozenink profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Thanks tammyswallow. But of course, the criminal justice system has done fair amount of justices to the public as well. It's just sometimes worrying that the system can have its loopholes. A wrong conviction might just accumulate on the blameworthiness of the system but it is necessarily a lifetime cost for the innocent defendant to pay.

    • tammyswallow profile image


      5 years ago from North Carolina

      There are so many problems with the justice system. You have done a great job outlining specific examples of how the system has failed over the years!


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