Tuesday 6th September was a great day for the JENGbA campaigners. It was the first hearing of our joint enterprise private members bill in the House of Commons. An important Bill that tackles the appalling issue of the appeal system in England and Wales. With the support of some incredible cross party MPs our Criminal Appeal Bill had the support needed and we all felt confident.
Campaigners and supporters traveled far and wide to hear it live in the public gallery at the House of Commons. It was a day everyone had been waiting for, especially young lawyer Charlotte Henry who wrote the bill with the help of others who are interested in delivering a fair and equal justice system.
As campaigners we have always been peaceful and respectful. Even through the pain of injustice we have never shown anger or disrespect. We have always been mindful that there is a victim and their family in every case we support. Joint Enterprise has torn our lives apart and we believe an unworkable appeal system tears their lives apart too. No one wants the innocent convicted to life sentence for a murder the trial process proves they did not inflict. It has always been love that has kept each of us going.
As we all passed through security, some of us (myself included) were greeted by security staff who recalled seeing us the day before at a meeting we held across the road at Portcullis House. A positive meeting full of hope & positivity.
As the clock ticked closer to the reading of the bill in parliament, the security team entered the public gallery picking off individuals asking them to leave. Eventually my turn to be asked to leave came. I asked why? I wasn’t given what I felt was a reasonable explanation. As a peaceful and respectful campaigner I did not refuse. Instead I made my way back upstairs to the corridor thinking I would receive an explanation there. I did this with great difficulty as I’m currently on crutches due to an accident I had days earlier.
Going to London was a hard decision to make. I knew I’d be in pain but to be in the House of Commons listening live, felt like physically being part of history in the making, just as it had been in 2016 in the Supreme Court the day our most senior judges acknowledged the law took a “wrong turn” in 1984. Back then the ruling validated all we had said about the common law of Joint Enterprise. A bittersweet victory because gaining appeals as we had expected back then proved impossible due to the unreachable substantial injustice test. A test to date that has only been reached by two people. 32 years of injustice followed by a landmark judgement that inserted a “test” that would deliver further injustice. Yet we did not give up.
And because we did not give up Legal history was in the making once again and it was important to witness the first day of it unfolding. We had all agreed in advance not to make as much as an audible gasp as this stage passed. Just to relish the moment with a contended smile. Then go to the pub to celebrate together like a family.
What should have been a joyful experience turned quickly into humiliation and trauma
However, what should have been a joyful experience turned quickly into humiliation and trauma. Each of us were escorted out of the public gallery and back down to the Great Hall. Not only House of Commons security but to our disbelief the Police swarmed as if we were criminals. Why did this happen? Earlier security greeted us politely, remembering us from the day before. And now I was being told by two police officers that I had to leave the building. I had to sit down on a bench as I was in pain from being rushed down so many steps without help. I was in shock and asked if I could have a drink of water before leaving. I was told quite aggressively by a police officer no and that I must leave immediately.
I asked if I was going to be arrested? I asked what had I done to be escorted from the building? I asked if there was someone in my company that had done something wrong and if I was being made accountable for whatever it was they had or may have done? Was this a joint enterprise?
It became even more scary as dogs appeared and then the police formed a line across the Grand Hall. It felt like we were being kettled. As if we were trouble to be dealt with. To be removed because we were not entitled to be there. Not entitled to hear the first step in the bill that one of our numbers had written. A Bill that JENGbA campaigners and the prisoners we support have spent years of their lives waiting for. An important moment for all of us. And to be fair a very important moment for the British Justice System and even the world over.
Our rights to be in the House of Commons, as ordinary members of the public were being denied and no one could tell each of us as individuals why.
However, they could tell us collectively that we must ALL leave the building. The irony, we enter this public building to hear a joint enterprise criminal-appeal bill, and are hurled out as a joint enterprise what? I don’t know? Security risk? No one can tell me! There was mention of someone having had glue and a homemade banner removed from their person as they entered the first door of the building. Then the words Extinction Rebellion could be heard from security staff. We were JENGbA not Extinction Rebellion, the same security staff remembered us from the day before. They knew who we were, some wished us luck, they allowed us all inside the building after checking all of our bags and seated us all in the public gallery. If their had been a security breach it was with their own security and certainly nothing to do with any of us. A shameful experience and one that needs to be investigated.
With the help of one of JENGbA’s Human Rights lawyers instead of being escorted from the building we were eventually led into the Jubilee Room to watch the reading on a television screen. As expected it passed this first staged and was backed by twelve cross party MPs. The Bill will no doubt face challenges along the way and we expect that, but if this humiliating debacle has anything to go by it may be even harder than we expected. Natural justice should flow smoothly and we know from our past experiences how injustice, once it takes a hold is like a cancer, ravaging every good opportunity and turning light into darkness with no logical explanation.
In true JENGbA spirit we left the Jubilee Room and waited quietly outside for MP Barry Sheerman, who delivered the bill to parliament, so we could thank him for his support and to say thank you for giving hope to those we love dearly and for being brave enough to tackle an issue very few care about. Unless of course it happens to them. And in true Barry Sheerman style he took us on to the terrace at the House of Commons peacefully passing security staff and then sat in the sunshine overlooking the river Thames, quietly smiling in celebration. Campaigning isn’t easy but when I think about all those men, women and children convicted using the wrong interpretation of the law, as they sit in their prison cells year after year I feel very fortunate.
About the Author
Jan Cunliffe is one of the co founders of the campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association). Their tireless campaigning was undoubtedly instrumental in the 2016 Supreme Court victory, where senior judges acknowledged the law had taken a wrong turn in 1984. That’s 32 years of injustice. Now they have been vindicated the campaign leads the way in gaining acquittals for the wrongly convicted and achieving further legal reform in several different areas, such as abolishing life sentences for children and the mandatory life sentence that takes away the discretion of the judge when it comes to sentencing. Jan is part of our 2022 Spokesperson Network Programme.