JENGbA National Injustice Conference Wigan June 20th 2015.
“Justice on Trial”
I was privileged to speak at this humbling and inspiring conference, exploring in my contribution the significance of the neo-liberal ‘war on youth’, the demise of youth work and the need to resuscitate social solidarity. The following excellent report has been provided by David Scott, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University.
Thanks to Brenda Wright for the photos
The Annual JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) Conference was held in The Old Court, Gerrard Winstanley House Wigan on the 20th June 2015. The courtroom venue was atmospheric and set the tone for the day, for the intention of the organisers was to put ‘Justice on Trial’. The conference opened with the arrival of our conference chair (Joy France) dressed with cloak and wig and full of pomp and ceremony, who explained the purpose and order of the day. The speakers and performers were to give ‘evidence’ to the ‘court’ about whether the criminal process should be condemned as ‘unfit for purpose’ and members of the audience were to act as the ‘jury’ and come to verdict towards the close of the day.
The first event was a live performance by Anteros Theatre Company Wigan, who had written their short play especially for the JENGbA conference. The five performers delivered a short but excellent fictionalised account of a murder on a hen night. Although only one of the four characters had perpetrated the act the judge asked the ‘jury’ (which comprised of around 120 people) to think about who under the current law would be convicted of murder. This illustrated very well the key problem of over criminalisation in the joint enterprise laws, a theme that was explored through the rest of the day.
The first person called to the stand to give evidence was Janet Cunliffe, one of the founder members of JENGbA. Janet set the tone for the rest of the day with a resolute account of the limitations of the criminal law. Janet talked passionately about the miscarriage of justice concerning her son, Jordan Cunliffe, revealing that even though Jordan was in effect a blind bystander to the death of Gary Newlove in 2007, he still received a 12 year sentence for his murder. Janet questioned the legitimacy of the laws regarding joint enterprise, highlighting the disproportionate nature of sentences; limitations around ‘evidence’ of guilt; and the creation of innocent victims through this laws application. Janet ended her talk demanding “justice for all”.
The next speaker was Janet Alder (Black Lives Matter). Janet gave a heart-wrenching account of the death of her brother Christopher Alder in 1998 and the subsequent injustices that she and her family have faced at the hands of the British police. Janet talked about her struggle to uncover the blatant police racism surrounding the death of Christopher. Janet gave details from the 11 hours of CCTV footage she had eventually been allowed access, and told a horrified audience about the “monkey and chimpanzee noises” that could be heard whilst Christopher was dying on the floor of the Hull police station. There were even more gasps of despair following the revelation that in November 2011 she discovered that it had been the body of a 77 women, and not that of Christopher who had been buried and that Christopher had remained hidden in an old mortuary for years after his death. When Janet had been able to access materials – a 290 page document – 190 pages had been redacted. Janet talked about the ‘right to life’ (Article 2 of European Convention) and the importance of promoting human rights, both in terms of the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, but also in terms of being treated like an ordinary human being.
Martin Foran, the only person in the UK to have been subjected to two miscarriages of justice, was next to bear witness. Martin highlighted harms and injustices wrought by the criminal law and the prison place. He argued that the joint enterprise law was used against working class people rather the terrible harm generated by the actions of politicians, who seemed to be able to act with impunity. Martin gave an account of his experiences of imprisonment and talked in depth about “assisted suicides in prison” – that is, when prison officers in riot gear enter the cell of a prisoner in the early hours of the morning and place the prisoner in a noose. Martin gave evidence of prison officer brutality and the terrible consequences for his health. Overall Martin made a power plea for greater unity from those struggling against miscarriages of justice and for activists to unite and take their struggle to the streets.
Martin was followed by Simon Pooke, a solicitor who has been engaged in a number of different struggles challenging state power and supporting individuals and groups engaged in actions to protect existing legal rights. Simon made a considered and powerful case against the suppression of evidence, access to truth and repressive policing of protest. Simon gave a number of cases he had been involved in as a practitioner and pointed an accusing finger at practises silencing dissent. Simon talked about prison resistance and prisoner rights and also popular protests like those currently around ‘fracking’ in Barton Moss. Simon pointed to the problems around secret evidence and the denials of truth and joined the chorus of previous speakers in demanding that ordinary people should have a voice. Our Judge for the day, Joy France (Independent Poet) ended the morning session with a wonderful short poem which highlighted the importance of speaking out and being heard. It provided a wonderful summary of proceedings.
The conference reconvened in the afternoon with two speakers from the floor – both of which made powerful contributions highlighting the injustices of the current criminal process. The first speaker, whose brother had been murdered, highlighted the very long sentences for people convicted under the joint enterprise laws. The second speaker pointed to the injustices generated by ‘police spies’ and police covert surveillance which had led to the imprisonment of her father. Terry Renshaw then spoke on behalf of the Shrewsbury Pickets campaign. Terry provided a detailed account of the history of this miscarriage of justice and his own treatment at the hands of the law. He talked with great power about the imprisonment and later death of Des Warren. Des Warren had always maintained his innocence and had protested against the inhuman and degrading treatment of prison regime. Des had been given a ‘liquid quosh’ [drugs like largactil to control his behaviour] and following release he died of “drug induced Parkinsons disease”. Terry also talked about the current struggle to gain access to papers on the case, which as he explained members of Parliament had voted to allow. His points about the suppression of dissident voices, protest and restrictions on access to evidence chimed with much of the evidence presented in the morning session.
Malcolm Jones (Social Work Action Network) spoke next and he, along with the following speaker Tony Taylor (In Defence of Youth Work) shifted direction away from individual cases to one evidencing the scale of injustice facing working people in modern Britain. Malcolm provided a very informed discussion seeping with detail, drawing upon data and cases studies to illustrate how the law is used to control the poor. Malcolm covered much ground, highlighting the corrosive impact of privatisation; the sanctioning of people on benefits; the rise of ‘food banks’; the widening of the gap between rich and poor; the consequences of austerity policies; and the growing threats to health, including mental health, in an increasingly unequal society. Tony Taylor then followed up on many of these themes. He located current injustice within the context of Neo-Liberalism and how this was damaging lives, with his main focus on young people – “the war on youth”. Tony explored relationship between young people and the police and talked about the deaths of young people in custody. Like the previous speaker, Tony drew upon a raft of up-to-date statistical data and case studies to evidence his argument. Tony concluded his excellent talk with a call for unity. Like Terry before him, Tony argued that “if one gets kicked, all should limp”.
After questions and an open discussion highlighting concerns about privatisation and the profit motive behind the over-criminalisation of working class people, Janet Cunliffe returned to ask the jury whether, based on the evidence they had heard, if they found the criminal law guilty or not guilty of generating injustice. The answer was immediate and virtually unanimous: Guilty. After the judge had acknowledged and thanked the organisers of the conference, David Scott (Liverpool John Moores University) then brought conference to a close by summing up a number of the key points. He focused on four core values that he been expressed throughout the day: accountability; human rights; democracy and justice. Evidence pointed to the lack of accountability of the state and the exercise of power without responsibility. Truth was being suppressed, but the importance of the powerful being truthful, and the people speaking truth to power was reaffirmed. Recognition of our common humanity and its systematic denial by the criminal law, policing and imprisonment was something that many of the speakers spoke passionately about. The criminal law was undermining human rights but what the conference delegates demanded was a right to live and prosper rather than just survive.
Following in the footsteps of Gerrard Winstanley, who had argued that “action is the life of all, and if though dost not act, though dost nothing”, the third theme of the day was democracy. This involved a range of calls for a right to protest, for our voices to be heard, for channels to be available to effectively challenge miscarriages of justice. The law should help facilitate rather than impinge upon the democratic participation of the people. The final theme of the day concerned the meaning of justice. Much discussion had focussed on “injustice” and the failure of the criminal law to provide justice. But alongside this there had been calls for the promotion of social justice – social and economic equality; solidarity with other people who had experienced legal repression; and freedom to live and prosper as human beings.
The conference ended with David Scott reading the following short piece which had been written and distributed to ‘members of the jury’ by Martin Foran:
Always it’s the working class
Lack of Money
The Rich can buy justice
The poor person has to
Fight for legal aid
Fight for help
Fight to be heard
If we stand together
We can fight together and
Stop all injustice