Records of Justice (British Section of the International Commission of Jurists)



Admin History:

Justice has its origins in an ad hoc all-party grouping of lawyers which emerged in Britain in the late 1950s. The initiative came from Peter Benenson, a journalist with legal training, and the impetus from two events overseas with fundamental implications for the rule of law and minimum standards of justice. Firstly in South Africa, on 5 December 1956, 156 people were arrested and charged with treason under the Suppression of Communism Act. The arrests were precipitated by the adoption of a Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People, which had been convened by the African National Congress (ANC) in June 1955. A large proportion of the ANC leadership was detained, including its President, Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as were many other opponents of apartheid, such as Helen Joseph, Secretary of the South African Women's Federation. Serious legal concerns were raised by the definition of treason employed by the state and the special court in which the trials were to be held. This was compounded by the determination to hold a simultaneous trial of 156 people (U DJU/1/1; U DJU/2/1).

The response in Britain came from several quarters, especially the legal profession. Coordinated by the respective chairmen of the Association of Liberal Lawyers, the Society of Labour Lawyers and the Inns of Court Conservative and Unionist Associations, a number of MPs with legal training undertook a joint campaign to secure fair trials for the accused in South Africa. When the preliminary hearing began in Johannesburg on 19 December 1956, the group, known as Justice, sent Gerald Gardiner QC as a legal observer. This was followed at the main trial (which began in August 1959) with other observers, sent in cooperation with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). These included F H Lawton QC and Elwyn Jones QC MP, who had served as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. In addition the Defence and Aid Fund was established by Christian Action to meet the costs of the defence and support the families of the accused. One of the sponsors of the Fund was Gerald Gardiner QC.

Although the political situation worsened in early 1960 with the Sharpeville massacre and the declaration of a State of Emergency, the Treason Trial effectively collapsed. Charges against the majority of the defendants were either dropped or quashed during the course of the proceedings. The remaining 30 were found not guilty in March 1961 in a vindication of the campaign for a fair trial.

The suppression of the Hungarian uprising which had begun in Budapest on 23 October 1956 provided the second spur to action amongst the founder members of Justice. Following the invasion by Soviet troops on 4 November, the regime of Janos Kadar embarked upon a reign of terror and retaliation which lasted over six years. One of Kadar's first acts was to reintroduce internment by decree. In response to the repression, Sir Arthur Comyns Carr QC, Geoffrey de Freitas MP and Jocelyn Simon QC, MP wrote to The Times on behalf of Justice. Putting the case for a fair trial of those arrested, their letter, published on 18 December, pleaded that 'The men and women who raised their voices for liberty must not be put to judicial death' (U DJU/11/31).

Attempts were made to send impartial legal observers to the most significant trials, those of the President and Spokesman of the Greater Budapest Workers' Council, members of the Workers' Council at Csepel Island Iron Works and General Pal Maleter, who had famously defended the Kilian barracks in Budapest against Soviet attack. These attempts failed and Kadar continued systematically to undermine the rule of law. During the course of 1957 the death penalty was introduced for strikers and those who incited others to break the law, followed by internal exile and restrictions on the choice of defence lawyers. In February 1958, Peter Benenson was eventually admitted to the country, where he witnessed a staged trial. The visit had little positive impact. Imre Nagy, the dissident Communist Prime Minister, was executed in June of the same year.

The momentum of opposition to events in South Africa and Hungary and the evident need to continue this work led to the formation of a permanent organisation, also called Justice. After discussions with Norman Marsh, the Secretary General of the ICJ, Justice constituted itself as the British Section of the Commission. A public meeting was held at Niblett Hall, Inner Temple on 17 January 1957 to publicise the work of the ICJ and generate support for the aims of Justice. Five months later, the Council, Chairman (Lord Shawcross QC) and Secretary (Tom Sargant JP) had been appointed and a constitution agreed. The first Executive Committee meeting on 11 July resolved that Justice would have no formal relations with the National Council for Civil Liberties, despite the common concerns shared by the two organisations. Furthermore, a decision was made to refrain from taking up individual cases, except where all processes of justice had been exhausted or general matters of principle were involved. Its constitution committed Justice 'to uphold and strengthen the principles of the Rule of Law in the territories for which the British Parliament is directly or ultimately responsible: in particular, to assist in the administration of justice and in the preservation of the fundamental liberties of the individual' (U DJU/2/1; U DJU/1/1).

The ICJ, to which Justice affiliated, was the product of an international conference in West Berlin in the early 1950s which resolved to establish a permanent Commission in The Hague. Its first congress was held in Athens in 1955, where the participants drafted the so-called 'Act of Athens' to define the nature of the rule of law. The charter of the ICJ, also adopted in 1955, declared that 'The Commission is dedicated to the support and advancement of those principles of justice which constitute the basis of the Rule of Law.' The universal Declaration of Human Rights came to embody those principles and as such, the ICJ gave itself the specific task of working towards full observance of the Declaration. Its role as the chief provider of information to the United Nations (UN) on the illegal actions of the Kadar regime in Hungary earned the ICJ consultative status with the UN as a Non-Governmental Organisation. The headquarters of the organisation is now based in Geneva and acts as the centre of a network of national sections, of which Justice is but one. Justice itself gave birth to a number of subordinate branches, particularly in the British colonies and dependent territories. As each of these countries moved towards independence in the 1960s, the branches reconstituted themselves as national sections of the ICJ (U DJU/10/2; U DJU/11/15).

In the 1960s, after a decade of campaigning, Justice underwent a period of internal consolidation. In order to focus its activities, permanent committees in the areas of administrative law, civil justice and criminal justice were created. Hence although pioneering work regarding the reform of administrative law had begun in the late 1950s, it was not until January 1966 that a Standing Committee was established to initiate and oversee such research. By far the most significant project was the investigation into the Scandanavian Ombudsman system and a report on The citizen and the administration was produced in 1961. Its recommendations were subsequently adopted by the Wilson government, resulting in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Act of 1967. A related committee went on to investigate the extension of the Ombudsman system into the arena of local government. Files DJU/3/14-18 document this work, the outcome of which was the establishment of Commissions for Local Administration in England and Wales under the 1974 Local Government Act.

The first meeting of the Standing Committee on Civil Justice was held in November 1967 and over the years its programme of research has been wideranging to include family property, homemade wills, and parental rights and duties in custody suits. Various aspects of company law were studied, resulting in two influential reports in the early 1970s on insider trading and bankruptcy. A number of the proposals on insolvency law were later enacted in 1986. Copies of both reports are included in the relevant files. Also during this period the principle of no-fault compensation for personal injuries was recommended in cases of accidents at work and road traffic accidents, and the papers generated during this project are contained in files U DJU/4/15-18.

Until the late 1960s, committees were formed on an ad hoc basis according to priorities identified by the Executive Committee. This practice continued after the establishment of the Standing Committees, particularly in cases where Justice was required to make a submission to a Royal Commission or other government-appointed body. Over the years these have included the Royal Commission on the Police, the Widgery Committee on Legal Aid in Criminal Proceedings, the Winn Committee on Personal Injuries Litigation and the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations.

The process of transition from Empire to Commonwealth which gathered pace in the 1960s was particularly difficult in Central Africa and this became a fundamental area of concern for Justice in its early years. The Federation of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland began to break down in the late 1950s, and a State of Emergency was declared in Nyasaland in 1959. File U DJU/11/55 covers this crucial period and includes a report compiled for Justice by L J Blom Cooper after visiting Nyasaland and correspondence with successive Secretaries of State for the Colonies. By the end of 1964 both Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia had gained independence and became known as Malawi and Zambia respectively. In total there are some six files relating to this part of Africa, spanning the period until 1981, by which time political power had been transferred to the African majority in Southern Rhodesia and the state renamed Zimbabwe. The administration of justice in the Seychelles also attracted the attention of Justice in the late 1950s. Liaison between Tom Sargant and both the Union of Democratic Control and the Colonial Office over a number of individual cases and the conduct of the Chief Justice of the islands is documented by files U DJU/11/60-62.

Over the years Justice has also undertaken a number of joint investigations in cooperation with such bodies as the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Tom Sargant was himself a member of the Council of National Association Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders from 1966 to 1981. In the early 1970s for example, the three organisations addressed the problem of previous convictions and produced an influential report, Living it down, the principles of which were embodied in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974. In collaboration with All Souls College, Oxford, a major review of administrative law was initiated in 1977 under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Neill QC. Five files of papers consulted by the Review Committee, in preparation for a seminar at the College in March 1980, are available in the archive and publication of the final report, Administrative justice: some necessary reforms, occurred in 1988 and is covered by file U DJU/3/13.

Justice has from its foundation defined itself as an expert, independent body, rather than a pressure group. Its organisation, membership and activities reflect this. The governing Council of Justice is composed of experienced practitioners, teachers and administrators of the law, including MPs from each of the major political parties. Its membership is drawn predominantly from the ranks of barristers and solicitors, but it also attracts academics and lay members. Over the decades its work has fallen into three main areas, the most significant being that of law reform. Through a series of official reports, Justice has gained a reputation for careful research and practical, often radical, solutions, many of which have subsequently been incorporated into law. As well as initiating reforms, Justice also monitors legislation as it progresses through Parliament. (U DJU/3/16; a comprehensive list of these reports to 1980 is included in The local ombudsmen, pp.159-60)

The pursuit of personal cases of injustice was originally considered to be beyond the scope of its work. However in the face of pressing need, the restriction to cases of general principle became unworkable. Through the efforts of Tom Sargant, and by working in collaboration with the BBC's Rough Justice and Channel Four's Trial and Error programmes, Justice established a record of pursuing miscarriages of justice and securing the release of wrongly convicted prisoners. Justice submitted expert evidence to the 1993 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which resulted in the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997, and since that date its casework has decreased.

Following the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law through the Human Rights Act of 2000, Justice reviewed its work and decided to focus on four main themes. These are human rights, criminal justice, the European arrest warrant, and the legal system and access to justice.


The archive provides comprehensive documentation of the work undertaken by Justice, primarily in the fields of administrative law, civil justice, colonial and Commonwealth affairs and criminal justice. There are some 169 files of correspondence, minutes, reports, memoranda and other papers generated by the various committees through which Justice investigated and reported on questions of law reform. Oversight of these committees was undertaken by the Executive Committee, which itself reported to Council on a regular basis. Minutes of meetings of both bodies are available, accompanied by files covering conferences at national, European and international level, and relations with the International Commission of Jurists and its many related organisations overseas. The collection of subject files in detail as follows:

Correspondence (1956-1985) being files that relate primarily to the establishment and early history of the organisation, and relations between the key founder members Peter Benenson, Tom Sargant (Secretary 1957-1982) and Hartley Shawcross (Chairman 1957-1972) (details of the casework undertaken by Justice are limited and are to be found amongst the papers of specific committees; one exception is a file of correspondence of Tom Sargant with many convicted prisoners during the late 1960s, which includes letters from the Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley).

Council and Executive Committee (1957-1978) being a complete series of minute books and files covering the work of both bodies and including minutes of Annual General Meetings; the first minute book is particularly valuable in documenting the process through which a permanent organisation was created out of an ad hoc campaign and in highlighting the overseas orientation of much of the early work.

Standing Committee on Administrative Law (1957-1989) including files of the investigation into the Scandanavian Ombudsman system, files on the extension of the Ombudsman system into the arena of local government and material on systems of compensation and freedom of information.

Standing Committee on Civil Justice (1967-1980) including files covering family property, passports, homemade wills, and parental rights and duties in custody suits, as well as reports from the early 1970s on insider trading, company law and bankruptcy and papers on no-fault compensation. Correspondence includes two letters from Gerald Gardiner (Lord Chancellor) dated 5 June and 10 November 1969.

Standing Committee on Colonial (later Commonwealth) Affairs (1952-1979) being files of correspondence and project papers, many from overseas lawyers, compiled by Tom Sargant (the series of country files should be seen as a complementary source). Correspondence includes letters from Lord Denning dated 23 November 1959 and 22 September 1960; Tony Benn dated 22 December 1960; Alec Douglas Home dated 20 July 1964. The file 1961-1965 includes papers on the proposal for a Commonwealth Convention and Court.

Standing Committee on Criminal Justice (1960-1982) being files relating to the criminal prosecution including one bundle and several individual files on the appeals process. There are also letters from Geoffrey Howe dated 3 January 1973; Roy Jenkins dated 16 June 1975; Lord Gardiner dated 10 August, 2 September 1972, 15 March 1977; Harriet Harman dated 18 December 1978.

Ad hoc committees (1950-1986) including files on the Royal Commission on the Police, the Widgery Committee on Legal Aid in Criminal Proceedings, the Winn Committee on Personal Injuries Litigation and the Royal Commission on Trade unions and Employers' Associations and a number of files are also included here in instances where it was not possible to identify the origins of a committee. There are also 24 files within the archive documenting work into the law regarding evidence. Each focuses on a particular aspect of the law, ranging from child witnesses and confessions to hearsay and previous convictions, and includes the memoranda produced by Justice on each topic. Two files cover the background to the implementation of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme in 1964. Three files relate to research in the early 1980s which identified the need for a legal right to compensation for wrongful imprisonment. There are also letters from Lord Gardiner dated 3 April and 9 September 1958, 24 February 1959, 10 March, 28 March and 2 May 1969, 8 July 1980; Leon Brittan dated 10 November 1980; Lord Denning 10 March 1960; Clive Jenkins dated 25 March 1964.

Joint bodies (1959-1991) including files relating to work done in cooperation with such bodies as the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and five files of papers consulted by the Review Committee into administrative law plus the final report, Administrative justice: some necessary reforms. There are letters from Lord Gardiner dated 23 January 1967, 12 January 1971 and 5 June 1973; Geoffrey Howe dated 27 April 1967; prime minister Edward Heath dated 4 September 1972.

Conferences (1965-1984) being papers relating to the Annual Members' Conferences for the years 1967-1969, 1974-1976 and 1980-1983. Such conferences were used as a forum for discussion amongst the wider membership of topical legal issues and as such, these files duplicate the subject matter of various committee investigations. The majority of the conference files document relations between Justice and the other European Sections of the ICJ, particularly the French Section, Libre Justice. The first joint meeting with Libre Justice was held in May 1958 to discuss human rights and the rule of law in colonial territories. Evidence of this partnership and exchange of ideas begins to occur in the archive with the late 1960s and an almost complete series of files for such meetings is available over the period 1970-1984.

International Commission of Jurists (1957-1981) including files covering conferences on the broad theme of rule of law held in New Delhi, India in January 1959 and Colombo, Ceylon in January 1966 (see also the Standing Committee on Colonial Affairs for a conference in Lagos, Nigeria, in January 1961). The official documentation of the Colombo conference includes an important series of surveys, undertaken by the ICJ's Secretariat, regarding the rule of law in Australia, Burma [Myanmar], Ceylon [Sri Lanka], China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Summary reports of the ICJ's activities during the 1970s are also available, as well as press releases and some correspondence between Geneva and London.

Country files (1954-1983) being 79 files, largely compiled by Tom Sargant, arranged alphabetically by country and reflecting two interrelated aspects of Justice's work, namely its concern to uphold the rule of law in the British colonies and dependent territories and its partnership with numerous overseas members, branches and national sections of the ICJ. Events in South Africa are covered in some depth over three decades and the most significant file focuses on the political trials of opponents of apartheid. Schedules of the charges faced by the defendants in the first Treason Trial are of special significance. Similarly the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 is documented by file U DJU/11/31, which contains several papers on the rule of law under the Kadar regime drawn up by the ICJ, as well as detailed tables of those convicted for their part in the uprising. File U DJU/11/55 covers the 1959 state of emergency in Nyasaland and includes a report compiled for Justice by L J Blom Cooper after visiting Nyasaland and correspondence with successive Secretaries of State for the Colonies. In total there are some six files relating to Central Africa, spanning the period until 1981. The administration of justice in the Seychelles is documented by files U DJU/11/60-62. Four files document the formation of a branch in the colony in Hong Kong in 1965 and research undertaken in the late 1960s into the applicability of the Ombudsman system. There are also files for Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malta, Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Spain. There are letters from Lord Gardiner dated 5 March and 15 March 1965.