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Rough Justice Changed My Life

(Posted on 14/07/14)


Rough Justice changed my life. As I reflect back more  than thirty years has passed since Rough Justice examined the case of Margaret Livesey and put, very briefly, the village of Bamber Bridge in front of a national audience. It is difficult to convey in an age of instant global  communication and dozens of TV channels just how profound an impact the  programme had on the country. This is not a nostalgic “weren’t things  better in those days” reflection. They were just different, but to the students I currently teach at the University of East Anglia it is difficult to convey the degree of difference.

So, what was it about Margaret Livesey’s case which made such an impact on me? Well the first thing is that the murder of Alan took place in the village where I was born and bred (strictly speaking I was born in neighbouring Preston, but spent most of my youth in the village). The murder took place in February 1979 by which time I was a young man living in the south of England so, rare though such an event was, I have no recollection of it from that year.

Then in April 1982 the BBC broadcast the first Rough Justice programme. The series was sensational. To get some idea of the impact one needs to bear in mind that the first series aired on one of only three TV Channels broadcasting at the time. It attracted audiences, at its peak, of something over 10 million viewers. A huge section of the public was being exposed to assertions that an innocent person had been convicted. This was also groundbreaking because, although disquiet about miscarriages of justice was becoming recognised in the wake of the Maxwell Confait case, the programme represented a direct challenge to the establishment. The Confait case involved the wrongful conviction of three young men for his murder and it laid the foundation for important reforms in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

For me the interest in the Rough Justice cases lay in the puzzle. How had the person in the programme been convicted? What were the pieces of the jigsaw which the prosecution had put forward which convinced the jury? Rough Justice meticulously set about reinvestigating and unpicking the evidence. I became convinced that justice could and did miscarry. And when they broadcast the programme about Margaret Livesey’s case, suddenly the locations were real to me. Martin Young was filmed outside the police station which I used to walk past on the way to my grandmother’s house. The pub Margaret visited on that fateful night was a well know local landmark.

And then the case itself. Well, it just seemed so unlikely that Margaret had actually killed her own son. Rough Justice did a fine job dissecting the case. And although it took me another 25 years to get round to it the case was a key influence in my decision in 2009 to return to University to undertake research into the plight of the innocent who have been wrongly convicted.

As part of that I researched what happened to Margaret in the wake of the Rough Justice programme which was broadcast in October 1983. The authorities were unmoved. Lancashire Police commented “This force does not want to substitute trial by TV for trial by judge and jury.” The organisation JUSTICE submitted a dossier to the Home Office in November 1983, but still to no avail. Further work by JUSTICE and a second Rough Justice TV programme did eventually bear fruit when the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal. Jubilation from the campaigners was dashed a year later in December 1986 when the Court of Appeal rejected the appeal saying, in an eerie forerunner to very similar wording in the 1988 Birmingham Six appeal:

“We have carefully considered all these matters and we are not of the view that this conviction was in any way unsafe or unsatisfactory. The more information that was adduced before us, the more we became convinced that the verdict of the jury was correct. This appeal is dismissed.”

Margaret remained in prison following the rejection of the appeal on the reference by the Home Secretary until she was finally released in 1989. She moved to the south of England and forged a successful career for herself achieving a senior position in the catering department of a hospital. She was diagnosed with throat cancer and returned to her home area in November 2000 prompting at least some surprise from the local populace. She died in February 2001, aged 64. Her case remains an enigma. In 2009, the Lancashire Evening Post ran a series of articles about the case including a two page spread capturing the conflicting views. Those who remain convinced of her innocence include her son, Alan’s brother Derek. The police officer in charge of the case, Detective Superintendent Ian Hunter, remains “100% convinced” of her guilt.

Margaret Livesey’s will contained a very unusual, perhaps unique, provision. It instructed her solicitors to continue to fight to prove her innocence.

Steve Heaton is academic supervisor of [email protected]

[L1]Add “Reporter” before Martin