Big impact of bomb accused going free

Mon, Aug 27, 2012, 01:00

MY FAVOURITE CASE: Joe Rice, founder and principal of John J Rice & Co solicitors' firm, Belfast

What is your favourite case?

As a young solicitor, I was blessed in having the late Paddy McGrory, the famous civil rights lawyer, as my master. Paddy instilled in me an interest in human rights law. He believed in the right of everyone to a fair trial and to first-class independent representation before the courts.

I started with Paddy in the autumn of 1980 when he was working on the appeal of the Queen v Edward Manning Brophy, representing the accused. This was my first real work case and my favourite case, as the appeal was upheld.

What is the background to the case?

Edward Manning Brophy had been charged with a number of terrorist crimes including the heinous La Mon House Hotel bombing in February 1978 in Belfast, in which 12 people died.

The evidence consisted mainly of confessions alleged to have been made voluntarily during interrogation. However, Mr Brophy claimed he was beaten and tricked into signing confessions.

I was fascinated by the clever judgment of the trial judge at Belfast Crown Court, Mr Justice Basil Kelly, who, clearly not believing the evidence of the police interrogators, held the Crown had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the confessions were not induced by torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment, and accordingly the confessions were ruled inadmissible. It says a lot about the judge that despite the huge pressure to get a conviction for this atrocity, he threw out the bulk of the charges.

In a twist, however, he convicted Brophy of membership of the IRA on the basis of admissions he had made during the voir dire or “trial within a trial”, and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment.

The question of Brophy’s conviction for IRA membership was finally decided in his favour in the House of Lords (now replaced by the Supreme Court as the highest appellate court). Brophy walked free.

The Lords confirmed the two rights which an accused (at that stage) was said to have in a criminal trial: firstly, the right to challenge the admissibility of confessional evidence, and, secondly, the right to remain silent at the trial proper.

What did you learn from this case?

I was a young, recent Arts/Law graduate from University College Galway at the time, and to see Brophy walk free made a big impression on me.

It really impressed upon me the importance of liberty. It doesn’t matter how comfortable the prison is, or how good the food – once that key turns in the cell door at night, your liberty has been taken away. That is a right that has to be carefully defended.

Moreover, the case made me aware that not all police tell the truth and indeed that judges can get their findings reversed on appeal. The case also stimulated me to do further research into the rights of those arrested, and I went on to study for a masters degree – an LLM in Human Rights, Emergency Law and Discrimination – in 1990.

Today, I’m still fascinated by the wider notion of the rule of law – that no individual or organ of the government can be above the law – and this precept is still vital to my work today when I represent victims in the historical institutional abuse cases and other human rights areas. Moreover, I learned that the rule of law is not an arid legal doctrine but that, if carefully nurtured, it can provide the foundation of a just society.

The 1970s and 1980s were the era of the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, and in Northern Ireland we had our own wrongful conviction case in the UDR Four, which I’m still involved with. Miscarriages of justices can happen anywhere, at every turn. You can bring in all the laws you want – video cameras and so on – but the system will never be foolproof. It can always be manipulated, so the courts are the last bastion for the defence of liberty and rights. Now in post-Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland, while life has changed for the better, we must be wary of government attempts to disadvantage the weak or vulnerable, or to lead a good lawyer away from his or her instincts.

Is it difficult representing people like Mr Brophy?

Many lawyers were identified wrongly with their clients. Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane were murdered for this reason.

In terms of representing people who are believed by the public to be notorious criminals, I’ve been brought up in the tradition that there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It would be a sad day if someone like me were to say: “I can’t represent you because I don’t like what’s being broadcast about you.” That would be the death knell of the presumption of innocence.