JUSTICE Minister Kenny MacAskill has sidestepped calls to review the guilty verdicts of Scottish miners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes during one of the most bitter industrial strikes of the 1980s.
Almost 500 pitworkers were convicted north of the Border of a range of offences after confronting police on the picket lines during the year-long miner’s strike of 1984. Now, amid claims that many of the convictions were miscarriages of justice, a leading law firm is planning to take five test cases to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) by the end of the year.
Although the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) asked the Scottish Government to review the cases, it has been told that ministers are not prepared to intervene.
In a letter to Labour MSP Neil Findlay, MacAskill said any review of the convictions of miners could only take place if individuals contacted the SCCRC.
MacAskill said: “In instances where someone has been convicted of a crime in a Scottish court and it is alleged that, for whatever reason, a miscarriage of justice may have occurred in respect of that conviction, the person can contact the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.”
The law firm involved is Thompsons, which has represented victims of disasters such as Piper Alpha, Hillsborough and the King’s Cross fire. It is asking miners involved in the politicised strike over pay and conditions if they were arrested and convicted during the year-long strike over pit closures, and to explain the circumstances surrounding the charges.
The NUM estimates 60 per cent of the 11,000 miners arrested UK-wide, many for breaches of the peace, were apprehended on “bogus” grounds.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission in England is already investigating allegations of tampering with statements made by witnesses and officers relating to clashes at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire in 1984, one of the key flashpoints of the industrial dispute.
Bruce Shields, the lawyer who is leading the attempt to challenge the convictions, insisted that the firm was confident about taking the cases to appeal.
He said: “We will investigate cases with a view to make an appeal to the SCCRC. We’re going to consider the statements from people who were arrested and convicted and we want to know how many Scottish miners were caught up in the events.
“This is an issue that’s raised its head and now it’s a case of sending out the questionnaires and getting back the responses from the men involved, and we hope to get the information in as soon as possible.”
Shields went on to say that if the five initial test cases were successful, the “next logical step” would be to ask Scotland’s highest court to reconsider the criminal records of all miners who were handed guilty verdicts.
Campaigners say the miners’ convictions may be “unsafe” and politically motivated – particularly for picket line offences, for which miners claim they were threatened with custodial sentences but offered less severe punishments if they accepted bail conditions that banned them from picketing.
Labour MP David Hamilton, a former miner who spent two months in jail on remand during the 1984-85 strike before being cleared, said he was “hopeful” the legal attempt to overturn the convictions of miners would be successful.
“It’s good to see Thompsons involved as they were the lawyers who helped with the compensation claims for miners who suffered work-related injuries,” he said.
“They are well versed in the legislation surrounding all these issues and I’m hopeful that we can find a way forward through this.”
Findlay, who wrote to Mac-Askill demanding a review of the cases and who represents a mining constituency, said he had been in touch with a number of miners who are intending to challenge their convictions.
He said: “Initial discussions have been very positive and we are looking at taking things forward in a number of different ways.
“We are currently building up a picture of some of the cases of the people involved and would urge individuals who were arrested and charged on grounds they believe were bogus or exaggerated to get in touch with me so we can record the details of their story and what ultimately happened to them.”