The actor Ricky Tomlinson has had his conviction for conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray overturned, 48 years after he was found guilty. The Court of Appeal found aspects of the original trial to be unfair, meaning the verdict could not be relied upon.

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Ricky Tomlinson’s 1973 conviction

While working in construction in the early 1970s, Ricky Tomlinson became involved in trade union activity. He picketed during the 1972 national builders’ strike, calling for better wages and health and safety. He was amongst 24 individuals – known collectively as the Shrewsbury 24 – who were arrested for their involvement.

Tomlinson, who later became famous for playing Jim Royle in the Royle Family, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. Six others were also jailed.

Court of Appeal overturns conviction

Tomlinson and the co-accused have long fought to clear their names. The Criminal Cases Review Commission finally referred their cases to the Court of Appeal, which returned its verdict earlier this year. Now, after nearly 50 years, the convictions have been overturned.

Of central important to the appeal was the destruction of the original witness statements. This was not revealed to the judge or the accused at the time of the trial. However, it was later discovered that before the trials, the police re-visited the witnesses to obtain identification evidence. Rather than making additional statements, the police decided to amend the earlier statements instead.

Giving the court’s judgment, Lord Justice Fulford said the destruction of original witness statements “was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld”. Had the destruction of earlier statements been revealed to the defence, it could have been explored with the witnesses under cross examination, and the judge would have been given proper directions. This would have ensured fairness to the accused. As that did not occur, the convictions were said to be unsafe.

A prejudiced jury?

During the appeal, it was also argued that the jury had been prejudiced by an ITV programme called “Red Under the Bed”, which was released during the first trial. Some of the accused featured in the programme. It was claimed that this could have swayed any jury member who saw the programme, undermining the safety of the conviction.

However, the Court of Appeal dismissed this idea. Lord Justice Fulford said: “the question for this court is whether the risk that the programme may have been seen by one or more jurors renders the verdicts in the three trials unsafe. We have no doubt this is not the case.”

Could this happen today?

Nowadays, the prosecution is required to disclose any material that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the prosecution’s case, or assisting the accused. There is a duty to keep draft and final statements where the content differs, along with any material casting doubt on the witnesses’ reliability.

With regard to the “Red Under the Bed” programme, Lord Justice Fulford said: “There is no doubt, in our judgment, that in 2021 the court and the parties would take steps to seek a postponement of the broadcast of a programme such as Red Under the Bed until after the trial.”

Therefore, it is unlikely that similar issues would arise in criminal cases going forward. Even so, miscarriages of justice do happen. Others – like Tomlinson – are still fighting to clear their name years after the original conviction was handed down. His case just goes to show that it is never too late to achieve vindication.

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