The 24 Shrewsbury pickets were arrested and charged with more than 200 offences including unlawful assembly, affray, intimidation and conspiracy to intimidate. The charges were brought five months after the ending of the 1972 national building strike.
Following a series of trials beginning in October 1973, six of the pickets were sent to prison, with the remainder receiving non-custodial sentences.
Lord Justice Fulford, the Court of Appeal judge, said in his ruling overturning the convictions: “By the standards of today, what occurred was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld.”
Campaigners have for years argued that the trial process was tainted by political interference; 14 of the original 24 have continued with their legal battle for 47 years.
The lead picket, Des Warren was sent to prison for three years and blacklisted upon his release. As a result, he never worked again and died in 2004, aged 67.
Others who were jailed included Ricky Tomlinson, who went on to find fame as an actor in Brookside and The Royal Family since he was unable to work in the construction industry again.
Bindmans LLP has represented 12 of the 14 successful appellants including the leading picket, Des Warren (deceased), John McKinsie Jones, Ken O’Shea (deceased), Malcom Clee, Michael Pierce, Terry Renshaw, Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams, Alfred James (deceased), Roy Warburton (deceased), Graham Roberts (deceased) and John Seaburg (deceased).
The successful appeal follows the referral of the pickets’ convictions to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, seven years after such a referral was requested, and not before the pickets had to judicially review the CCRC to overturn an initial refusal. The referral was based on evidence discovered in the National Archives by the campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull, showing two separate grounds for an abuse of process:
- original witness statements had been destroyed by the police and this fact had not been disclosed to the defence counsel or to the court; and
- the broadcast of a highly prejudicial documentary during the first trial, the content of which was contributed to substantially by a covert agency within the Foreign Office known as the Information Research Department.
The Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgment, upheld the first of these grounds in respect of all appellants, observing at paragraph 87: “If the destruction of the handwritten statements had been revealed to the appellants at the time of the trial, this issue could have been comprehensively investigated with the witnesses when they gave evidence, and the judge would have been able to give appropriate directions. We have no doubt that if that had happened, the trial process would have ensured fairness to the accused. Self-evidently, that is not what occurred. Instead, we are confronted with a situation in which an unknown number of the first written accounts by eyewitnesses have been destroyed in a case in which the allegations essentially turned on the accuracy and credibility of their testimony. As we have already described, we consider it correct to infer that the descriptions by the witnesses would in many instances have changed and developed as they were shown the photographs and as the police gained greater understanding of what those responsible for the investigation sought to prove. Those changes and developments could have been critical for the assessment by the jury of whether they were sure that the individual appellants were guilty of the charges they faced. The jury either needed to have this evidence rehearsed in front of them to the extent necessary, if the statements were still in existence, or they needed to be given clear and precise directions as to how to approach the destruction of the statements if that had occurred. Neither of those things happened, and in consequence we consider the verdicts in all three trials are unsafe.”
Terry Renshaw, a member of the campaign since its inception, and who received a suspended sentence all those yeasr ago, spoke for all the pickets. “We never thought that we would see this day, when this miscarriage of justice was overturned,” he said. “The Court of Appeal has acknowledged that we did not receive a fair trial. The police and the prosecuting authorities used every trick in the book to secure guilty verdicts even if it meant trampling over our rights and manipulating the evidence.
“On behalf of all the pickets I would like to pay tribute to the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, without whom we would never have achieved this victory. In particular we owe a great debt to our researcher, Eileen Turnbull, for working tirelessly to obtain the crucial evidence that got our case to the Court of Appeal and brought about our victory.”
Harry Chadwick, chairperson and founding member of the campaign, was equally overjoyed. “We have overcome tremendous obstacles to reach this day,” he said. “We could not have done it without the support of the TUC, the trade union and labour movement. This is an historic victory for all working people.”
The campaign’s researcher and secretary, Eileen Turnbull, paid tribute to the eight pickets who stood firm. “I am particularly happy for the eight pickets who stood with the campaign, through all the tough times: John McKinsie Jones, Malcom Clee, Michael Pierce, Terry Renshaw, Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams and the families of the late Des Warren and Ken O’Shea. Their tenacity and belief in our case was an inspiration,” she said.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said: “Today is a joyous and just day for the 24, and for working people everywhere, but these innocent workers should never have been put in this miserable position by the forces of the British state.
“We salute the heroic men and their families and their enormous courage in taking on the apparatus of the state in order to clear their names. History will rightly record their heroism.
“I send my very best wishes to my good friend Ricky Tomlinson, who can take enormous pride from today’s ruling, and my thoughts today are with Dessie Warren, who sadly did not live to see justice delivered, and his family who fought on in his name.
“It is also a landmark day in trade union history. For nearly 50 years this group of workers have been defending themselves against deep, criminal injustices perpetrated by the state. Finally, the truth has been heard and justice has been done.
“On behalf of Unite I want to pay tribute to their determination and to the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, without whose work and commitment this victory for them and the working class would not have been possible.
“However, this day must also be marked with sadness, sadness for those who have not lived to see justice secured.
“Not only should the pickets never have been convicted, but the failure to overturn such clearly wrongful convictions for so long, casts a dark stain on society.
“It is vital that this miscarriage of justice is never forgotten. The pickets were victims of the state whose agencies, including the police, the judiciary and the intelligence services, conspired to make an example of ordinary trade unionists simply campaigning for better pay and safer working conditions for all building workers.
“The full details of who was involved in these trumped up charges remain shrouded in mystery and it is critical that the government papers from the time are finally published.
“It is essential that such state sponsored injustice is never allowed to happen again and that is particularly critical in the context of the present government which is intent on limiting the right to protest.”
Warren Kenny, acting general secretary of the GMB union, said: “It’s fantastic news that after nearly half a century of campaigning the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24 have finally been lifted.
“We pay tribute to those who were wrongly convicted and to the campaigners who have worked tirelessly to throw light on the collusion between the building industry and police.
“These pickets were prosecuted just because they had the audacity to ask for better working conditions and fair pay.”
To read more about the history of the Shrewsbury 24, see www.shrewsbury24campaign.org.uk
A full copy of the Court of Appeal’s judgement can be found here.