Screaming To An Empty Room

No. 27 of #50cases.

Imagine being accused of a crime you didn’t commit. Imagine if the accusation led to you spending the rest of your life behind bars. Worse, imagine if there was no way for you to tell your side of the story, if you were left screaming to an empty room.

Ian Simms and Michael O’Brien were convicted of separate murders. They persistently protested their innocence. They ran out of options in the courts and decided to try and get a journalist to investigate, so they could tell their side of the story. But the prison refused to let them speak to a journalist.

Simms and O’Brien took the prison to court, saying that the ability of the prison to refuse to allow journalists to visit and interview prisoners was in breach of their freedom of speech. The court agreed with them, saying that journalists should be able to interview prisoners as a way of making sure there were no miscarriages of justice. The judge said that freedom of speech was necessary in the ‘exposure of errors’ of the criminal justice system. The case is famous because the court said that if the state wants to interfere with fundamental rights, like free speech, it has to do so clearly and explicitly. “Fundamental rights”, said Lord Hoffmann, “cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words”.

After this case, prison policy in the UK was changed. Journalists are now allowed to interview prisoners so that they can help them investigate and challenge any miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, O’Brien was released and exonerated of murder. Simms, however, was not. He remains in prison.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

Media Coverage of this story