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Thursday, July 8, 1999 Published at 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK

UK Politics

Ban on prisoner interviews 'unlawful'

Restrictions "curtail freedom of expression"

The House of Lords has ruled that a Home Office ban on prisoners talking to journalists is unlawful and a contravention of basic human rights.

The UK's highest court overruled the Court of Appeal, which said in December 1997 that a prisoner was not allowed to talk to journalists who wanted to investigate their case.

[ image: The Guildford Four were wrongly convicted]
The Guildford Four were wrongly convicted
Lord Steyn, alluding to past miscarriages of justice, said: "The criminal justice system has been shown to be fallible.

"Yet the effect of the judgement of the Court of Appeal is to outlaw the safety valve of effective investigative journalism."

Test cases

The Law Lords allowed appeals by two prisoners, both serving life sentences, who spoke to journalists who were then unable to publish the contents of the interviews.

Ian Simms, convicted of murder in 1989, gave interviews at Full Sutton jail near York which were published.

But further contact with journalist Bob Woffinden was stopped when the prison authorities found out.

Michael O'Brien, convicted of murder and robbery in 1988, was visited by Karen Voisey, a journalist with BBC Wales, at Long Lartin jail in Worcestershire.

Prison authorities also intervened in his case to prevent further visits.

The Court of Appeal ruled in December 1997 that a prisoner should lose his freedom of expression as part of his sentence.

A convict could write to a reporter but could only have visits from lawyers, friends and relatives.

'Rights undermined'

The Home Secretary's argument was that media interviews would tend to undermine the discipline and control which were essential in a prison environment.

[ image: Lord Steyn:
Lord Steyn: "Criminal justice system fallible"
But Lord Steyn said the restrictions were "exorbitant...insofar as they would undermine the fundamental rights invoked by the prisoners".

He said the Lords had received details of at least 60 cases over the last 10 years in which journalists played a major role in identifying miscarriages of justice, leading to the quashing of convictions.

"It has been demonstrated that in recent years a substantial number of miscarriages of justice have only been identified and corrected as a result of painstaking investigation by journalists," said Lord Steyn.

'Fabulous news'

"Those investigations have included oral interviews with the prisoners in prison."

Pauline Smith, press officer for the 'M25 Three' campaign, told BBC News Online the ruling was fabulous news.

[ image: Raphael Rowe: In jail for nine years]
Raphael Rowe: In jail for nine years
Raphael Rowe, Michael Davis and Randolph Johnson are fighting to clear their names nine years into a life sentence for a murder and a series of violent robberies close to the M25 in Surrey.

Earlier this year they were given leave to appeal after the case was looked at by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Ms Smith said: "Raphael used to speak to the media quite often.

"But when he was at Maidstone Prison he was reprimanded for giving a telephone interview, he got into an awful lot of trouble."

"A lot of inmates don't have close friends or family and if they can't use their own voice whose can they use?" she asked.

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