July 29 2021

An open letter to the CCRC

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An open letter to the CCRC

Sketches by Isobel Williams from Proof magazine


Sketches by Isobel Williams from Proof magazine

Sketches by Isobel Williams from Proof magazine

Given the apparent public put-down of innocence projects by Richard Foster, chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, in one sentence of his recent interview (‘If you think that you have a terminal illness, would you rather have your case considered by medical students in the bar on Friday night – or would you rather send it to a consultant oncologist?’), and the number of comments, including from students, I thought it appropriate to pen a response in a similarly public way, so…

Dear Mr Foster

I congratulate you on engaging with the Justice Gap, but I join others in condemning your ‘bar’ analogy, whilst declaring my gratitude to you for not going the whole hog and suggesting that our submissions to the CCRC are made on the back of a fag packet.

At Cardiff Law School Innocence Project we take your slur very seriously, and on behalf of our hard-working, dedicated, enthusiastic, professional students, I invite you to withdraw your comment.

In these times of austerity, I also invite you to work more creatively with your ‘stakeholders’. The referral in your analogy to someone with a terminal illness is perhaps a Freudian slip   – it seems to indicate that you recognise that those who come to innocence projects or indeed the CCRC are unlikely to be cured under the current system. We concur.

Here are some facts, opinions and questions that underpin those invitations and observations.


Cardiff statistics
As the article points out, Cardiff has been responsible for more than half of the university applications to the CCRC: on 12 different cases, 15 applications in all including three re-applications (one referral by you to the Court of Appeal, which conviction was successfully overturned).

Additionally, we have drafted and submitted (often in conjunction with experts) a further seven substantive responses to various Provisional Statements of Reasons. In total, 22 pieces of high-quality evidence-based pieces of work were prepared largely by our students, and we are very proud to say that.

Each of those submissions has resulted from (often) years of painstaking research and analysis, undertaken by our students (always sober) under staff supervision. All but one of our submissions passed your initial sift, and went on for a ‘full’ case review by the CCRC (i.e., we raised sufficient doubt on the safety of the convictions to persuade your organisation to further look into the cases).


Substantial footwork is a necessity, not a luxury
It is a fallacy to suggest that all we need to do is to pass things to the CCRC and you’ll deal with them. Representatives from the Commission who have spoken at student events have made it clear that applications have to present significant new evidence.

This is not easy and the low level of referrals from such projects perhaps suggests that most have taken the Commission’s advice on board. It is clear that unless new evidence or a new line of argument can be proposed, then the proverbial cat in hell has more chance of passing your initial sift. Speaking only for Cardiff (but I’m sure that other university projects will concur), our operation is thorough and professional, even if our casework takes longer than is ideal, but we are not claiming to be beyond criticism.

Like you, we are operating on a shoestring, but unlike you we lack any powers to obtain documents or evidence for re-testing. That is perhaps where you could, and should, be more willing to work constructively with us, in the interests of those wrongly convicted who fall foul of the current statutory framework hurdles.


Lessons from Hillsborough?
We have dealt with more than 30 cases of people who may be wrongly convicted. This is admittedly a tiny number compared to your operations, and not all of ours reach a stage where we can realistically make a referral to the CCRC or Court of Appeal.

We conclude that your organisation is still reluctant to accept the possibility of problems with police investigations, and their potential consequential impact upon the safety of a conviction. Professor Carolyn Hoyle also addressed this when presenting her research at the Criminal Appeal Lawyers Association conference in November 2015: ‘Decision making at the CCRC: Responses to claims of police misconduct and poor legal defence at trial.’ One of her key conclusions was that the CCRC applies a high threshold for impact of misconduct on safety of conviction.

We are not suggesting for one second that police issues feature in most cases. However, where we see evidence of this, we have regularly presented you with detailed reports from not just one (because you have questioned his expertise despite impressive career credentials), but often two highly-qualified police forensic experts. We have spelled out to you the effect of those issues upon the integrity of a conviction, in several cases, yet still you refuse to refer those to the Court of Appeal to let them decide. Why?


Statutory constraints and/or timidity?
Are you reluctant to refer more cases because you know that the Court of Appeal will not readily accept such arguments? Fair enough – we know the limitations of your statutory remit.

Your interview with Jon Robins reminds us that you ‘welcomed’ the Justice Select Committee’s (JSC) 2015 recommendation that the Law Commission should review the Court of Appeal’s grounds for allowing appeals. However, we detected little recognition of the need for change in the CCRC’s submissions to the JSC.

So, with this in mind, how have you responded to the Justice Secretary declining to follow the JSC recommendations, and his reasoning? You regularly stress your independence, which you must, of course. But those democratically-reached recommendations, based on evidence, have been blown out of the water by a single politician seemingly acting on the word of a senior member of the judiciary.

The CCRC is independent of politics and the judiciary – so may I ask, please, what are the CCRC’s plans to react to that? We (with one tiny voice) have written to Michael Gove about not implementing the JSC recommendations.

In your latest annual report you say: ‘The Commission welcomes that recommendation as the appropriate way to take forward any further discussion.’ You are a key person in the criminal appeals arena – have you written to Mr Gove? If not the CCRC, then who is going to press the government on these matters? If it helps, those of us at the other coalface could provide you with examples from a different perspective to yours, of why this has to be addressed by politicians.

Please excuse these questions if the CCRC is already on the case, but it is difficult, if not impossible outside of your website and annual reports, to be aware of what actions the CCRC takes wearing its watchdog hat.


Delays and money
Delays of eight months (for in-custody cases) and 13 months (non-custody) before the CCRC even starts to look at a new case are noted. However, one of our clients on licence was told to wait three years for the review to start, although that has since been shortened a little. Is that acceptable?

Your introduction to the latest CCRC annual report says: ‘We look to the new government to deliver on these recommendations’ (that the CCRC gets an additional £1million a year, to eliminate its “unacceptable” queues). You lament the government ignoring this JSC recommendation. You are ‘sadly…not surprised’. But my question is – what are you doing about it?

Please don’t think we are naïve; between 2010 and 2015 central government spending on criminal justice fell by 18% in England and Wales (source: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies).

Also, while we’re on the subject of ‘holding on to cases’, you say one reason for delays is ‘the number of further representations that we receive from the very same people who are telling us get on with it’. Our own experience is that once a case is under review, we are rarely (and not regularly) informed of progress unless we ask. We know that to respond at length would divert a Case Review Manager (CRM) from valuable casework, so it’s a difficult balancing act, but lack of CCRC engagement is a problem.


Further and better particulars
In relation to some high-profile cases that have been on your books for an eon, you say you have sent Provisional Statements of Reasons (PSOR) and a few months down the line you are still waiting for representations, hence the delay. I’d be interested in more information on this please.

  1. We have some cases that took upwards of two years to reach the PSOR stage. Then when the PSOR was issued, we were given just one month to respond. Admittedly, this has sometimes been extended by kindly CRMs but never further than three months.
  2. In our experience, delays occur in the CCRC reaching a decision. Once a PSOR is given, it is usually a rejection, and in our view often an unreasonable one. At that point, time is needed to properly respond to points made – one month is not generally sufficient to respond meaningfully. In fact, in our experience most clients do not complain about the delays but they are devastated when the PSOR is issued containing what they (and often we) consider to be weak reasoning and a cursory level of “investigation”.

We note your strategy in your business plan and annual report on working more efficiently to deal with delays. However, as your report indicates, your referral rate dropped, so “speeding up” doesn’t necessarily equate to improvement in outcome.


More delays
Before we leave the thorny subject of delays, one person we know claims the dubious record of being your longest customer. His case was with the CCRC for 12 years (starting before your tenure, admittedly), with a short break for a threat of Judicial Review. In his words: ‘What other public body is given a job to do and still hasn’t finished it ten years later?’ Indeed. Massive national infrastructure projects aside, I think he has a fair point. In this person’s case even at the end of ten years he remains devastated by rejection of his case based on weak reasoning and cursory investigation.


Your reluctance to be described as campaigners is understandable – I share your pain.

University projects are educators first and foremost but have been drawn into this uncertain political world because of the dire situation that we have experienced first-hand. It is refreshing to see that the CCRC has recently put out calls for research project interest, but please also talk to us more creatively as regards casework, Mr Foster.

There is now no network or single individual that dominates this landscape a decade on. Those doing pro bono casework are a pretty approachable extremely loose alliance of foolhardy souls who have become reluctant ‘campaigners’ out of necessity.

Perhaps this ‘c’ word, and the ‘collaboration’ one, are two that should be embraced by the CCRC, in this period of increasing difficulty for us all. But we all need to recognise the need for change so that all of our work can be more effective in redressing injustice.


See you at the bar?
Anyway, over to you, Mr Foster. You know where we are if you fancy a chat. We’ll be in our under-resourced diligent student-filled offices with a cup of tea, not in the pub.


Yours sincerely

Professor Julie Price

Director, Cardiff Law School Innocence Project

13 responses to “An open letter to the CCRC”

  1. Well done Julie – I hope Mr Foster responds to your letter.

    Many people know of your students hard diligent work and we all hold our caps to you all and other students who are as diligent. Who all do voluntary work in this area of applying to the CCRC with convictions that are suspect against that of the paid CCRC.

    without your students (and others) work there would be no help for those maintaining innocence.

    Their are also a few small other voluntary groups diligently putting together case papers because individuals can show they have suspect convictions.

    At least we now have students who are being shown how the justice system does not work. When it is there time to become solicitors, barristers, judges even – they will have open minds so that their skills in working and remembering their training days of applying to the CCRC with the perceived wrongs of the system, will start at last to make the system such that the CCRC are no longer required.

    Margaret Gardener
    FASO Director

  2. Michael Naughton says:

    I fully support this letter and the questions that it poses.

    A small team of us are currently working on our response to a CCRC Statement of Reasons not to refer our clients case, which is also based on a desktop review and profoundly weak reasoning and/or arguments for NOT undertaking a more expansive investigation nor, crucially, the dna testing that a leading forensic scientist specialising in dna and bodily fluids recommended in our application.

    Our client has been in prison for over 18 years on a 14 year tariff for joint enterprise murder.

    There is no reliable evidence of his guilt and we believe him to be an innocent man.

    We await with interest any answers that this open letter may receive.

  3. Tabea Wilkes says:

    Julie –

    as one of those students, and on behalf of all the other dedicated students that have now read this – thank you.

  4. Claire McGourlay says:

    I also support this letter and thank Julie for writing it. You will also see our response. We have spent 9 years here at Sheffield getting to the point we are now with very few resources. We are trying to work together democratically, building a national database of cases being worked on ( as complete as we can!)and really trying to make a difference-spurred on by CARDIFF’S success. I thank Julie and Michael for leading the way many years ago but comments like this from the CCRC set you back and we really do not need them as we are all moving forwards and not backwards. The comments, as I said, are not the based in real time -they are not figures from 2016 – this is old news and data which was quoted by the CCRC at a conference in Sheffield in 2013.

  5. Charles Westwood says:

    Thank you Julie, as a student working with the Cardiff Innocence team I shall take a moment out of my busy drinking/case-working schedule to come up with some thoughts, seeing as it is not Friday night and I am not otherwise engaged.

    In many ways this attitude is disappointing and disturbing. There has been little love lost between the CCRC and the Innocence Projects and other voluntary casework institutions; there have been disagreements over a variety of issues, but never have we felt such a fundamental lack of respect for us and the work that we do. How can we and the people we work for trust the CCRC to objectively handle cases that we submit to them if they are going to dismiss the work simply because it came from us? The comments made by Mr Foster are symptomatic of what appears to be a lack of objectivity and professional integrity within a vital part of the UK appeals system, hopefully this is not representative of the whole.

  6. Helga says:

    I would like to dedicate a page or two to the newly formed university law school projects and also the work Dr Michael Naughton does. My website is http://www.pacso.co.uk

    I am trying to set this up as an information point for those who have no idea what grounds of appeal are or could be, and who cannot afford to pay a solicitor to ask for that advice. As we know legal aid is no longer available for a solicitor to take it on and work through it to clarify whether there are grounds (or not). Now grounds have to be established before LA is allocated (from what I understand). Lay people have no idea what grounds of appeal actually are or can be. What they may think are grounds actually are not, and this needs to be explained to them in simple terms.

    I have set up pages that direct people looking for support to various support groups, and two appeals I have been heavily involved with are on there (more to follow).

    I would be really grateful if people who run university “innocence projects” or similar, would email me with what they actually do, who people can contact etc, links, email addresses, phone numbers, whether this is after appeal has failed / CCRC has rejected it or whether a client can first make contact before appealing shortly after conviction.

    We can work together on this and I am happy to link to any university law schools.


  7. Michael Naughton says:

    Thank you, Helga.

    But, no need to completely reinvent the wheel, though, if you are going to be a point person going forward for those who want to work together on wrongful conviction cases as there is much on the INUK website that can also assist.

    Additionally, I have lots of other materials that you could adapt – guidance for new applicants, questionnaire, how to assess cases, distinguishing the eligible from the ineligible, client care contract between the project and the prisoner, caseworking protocols (validated by the Attorney General’s Pro Bono Committee, to name a few.

    Let me know if you want copies and I will send them to you.

    Alternatively, Julie (Cardiff) and Claire (Sheffield) (and all of the other innocence projects that were set up under INUK) will already have these materials and they can share them with you if they are interested in working with you and others.

    Why would they not be?

  8. Julie Price says:

    Helga – there was a discussion in Cardiff last weekend about common issues faced by those doing pro bono casework, so “working with others” is very much on people’s agendas, and collaborations are happening. We are all acutely aware of the very real problem of people seeking help not knowing where to try to find that help, although it’s clear that demand exceeds supply. Michael will know better than most of the problems of trying to provide some sort of “clearing house”, and no-one thinks it’s going to be easy or fully achievable.

    Sheffield (working with the Centre for Criminal Appeals) are developing a portal that will hopefully start to plug the gap left by INUK in that regard, but in a different way – bottom up, rather than top down. The new portal will also aim to be a hub for resources/communications in other ways – another need identified by Michael which he initiated via INUK. There will inevitably be teething problems, and how to make it sustainable without relying on just one or two people will be a core driver.

    As discussions advance, the net will no doubt widen and develop organically to meet needs, and to embrace expertise. It is uncertain exactly how these loose collaborations will evolve, but some sort of democratic collective (whatever that might be) is likely. You, and Michael, will be welcome to join in to enhance constructive discussions based on both your extensive experience, to avoid reinventing wheels and to help in ensuring that lessons learned to date are taken on board.

    No doubt progress will be reported via the Justice Gap along the way!

    • Helga says:

      Thanks Julie

      I agree with all you say. Let’s hope that we can all work together sharing information and helping as many people as we can along the way.

  9. Michael Naughton says:


    This reply is very vague, which seems unusual for you.

    Can you give more detail of who is involved and how others can get involved if they want to and what timeframe are you working to for the new collective to be operational? Do you have a website? Any forthcoming conferences planned for people to learn more?

    It seems clear that some sort of working together between the universities doing pro bono innocence work is required and also that it will pretty much almost entirely emulate the INUK model, albeit with different universities/people at the helm, which really makes us wonder why others failed to step up to take on core roles with INUK when asked.

    In any event, this is past history now and we/INUK genuinely do wish you well as innocence projects can achieve more for innocent victims of wrongful convictions by working together than in isolation.

    As with all things, though, we are judged by deeds not words and you and others have been discussing collaborations for several years now and it will be good to hear how you are making progress.

  10. Julie Price says:

    Michael – without hesitation, I (and others, I know) unconditionally acknowledge and celebrate your huge personal investment in bringing innocence projects to the UK. You had the vision and energy to put into action something that was needed then, and which sadly remains even more necessary today.

    There are many reasons why INUK did not work out as then structured, including the unsustainable burden on one or two people. Colleagues from five universities did offer to “step up”, but perhaps by that point it was too late for you? But as you say, that’s history.

    If you prefer, I am happy to have a private email exchange with you if that can be productive and constructive. I can then share what I know about progress on collaborations which are happening, not just being talked about. I can also then ask you some questions.

    There is no “helm”, and there is no “organisation”. Those of us collaborating informally want to learn valuable lessons from INUK. The communication mechanism for universities working in this area is currently the Clinical Legal Education Organisation (CLEO) criminal appeals email distribution list. This is not a closed shop. You were sent at least 2 emails inviting you to join that list, and you have in the past asked not to be engaged in collaborations that may or may not be happening, which I have respected. But if you have changed your mind then please add yourself to this list. If you want to make a constructive contribution to discussions, your vast experience would be very welcome.

    Moving forward, it will be important to establish (in a way that does not inadvertently mislead) what INUK now is, and is not, particularly if “it” is now doing casework unlike in the past. Thank you for the good wishes from “we/INUK” – it would be helpful to know exactly who is behind those wishes. The organisations currently collaborating informally are all working to some degree with students. Is this the case with “INUK” now that the Bristol project is closed?

    Those in Sheffield working on the portal hope to have something in place online over the summer. It will contain some way of facilitating universities and others working in the field to communicate, but the exact detail of how this will happen has not yet been resolved. It is a work in progress.

  11. Michael Naughton says:

    Alas, is this not too little to late?

    Is it really plausible to have played a major part in the development and then break up of INUK and want to have such constructive relations?

    Is it really plausible to be an out spoken critic of me, personally, and INUK and really want to work with me/INUK in any meaningful capacity?

    Contrary to what you say, I believe that there is a helm in the new CLEO grouping, likely with you/Cardiff and Sheffield (you don’t mention any other universities)at the forefront/helm.

    I don’t actually have a problem with this if the work is being done and the cases are being worked on and making progress which is what it should be all about and how the innocence projects will ultimately be judged.

    I also find it interesting that the critiques of the structures of the CCRC and the entire criminal justice system in terms of the causation of miscarriages of justice/wrongful convictions and the obstacles and barriers to their overturn that I have been researching and writing about for over 15 years now are now becoming clearer for you and others through your own experiences of trying to overturn alleged wrongful conviction cases.

    Personal and professional matters aside, I do wish you well (as I do anyone working on alleged wrongful convictions whether inside or external to universities) as INUK was set up so that more cases could be worked on in the interests of helping a greater number of innocent victims of wrongful convictions and their families.

    That you are committed to assisting the innocent is something that I recognise and applaud.

    However, the independence that the member innocence projects wanted and displayed by the general lack of interest or involvement with INUK is where we are at and I don’t see any going back.

    The challenge now is for those innocence projects or university miscarriage of justice schemes to stop looking backwards and looking for excuses and ways to apportion blame for their lack of progress with the cases that were referred to them in good faith by INUK.

    It’s time to pull up sleeves and get in the trenches and take responsibility for the responsibility that they have chosen to take on and investigate the cases in an ethical way that prioritise investigations over student education (which will always be an inevitable by-product if students are actually doing casework as the two things go hand in hand – “learning by doing”)and get involved with the research and public debate aspects that are also vital too.

    As I said previously, we are all judged, ultimately, on what we actually do and on results rather than what we say.

    I’m sure that you will agree that the time for talking (“constructive discussions”) is long over (Cardiff ceased INUK membership in 2010) and more doing is urgently required to truly and meaningfully assist the vulnerable and desperate innocent victims of wrongful convictions for whom we really are their last hope?

  12. Charles Westwood says:

    Dear Michael Naughton,

    I am merely a student within the Innocence Project at Cardiff and have been for the past 3 years; as a result I was not involved in the scheme when Cardiff was a part of INUK and I, therefore, have very little idea of the ins and outs of the facts of the separation.

    This distance, however, gives me a somewhat different perspective on the current situation. Let me begin by assuring you that, while I am a student at Cardiff, I try to not be biased to either side of an argument to which I am not involved and do not know the opinions of the other side.

    I shall now explain my experience thus far of working on Miscarriage of Justice cases. The training I undertook at the beginning was well-rounded and supported by varied experience and sometimes bleak honesty. The training is designed to put off students who are simply looking to enhance their CVs and make it clear that a significant time investment is required of students due to the needs of the casework and importantly the clients (I use this word here for ease but in the knowledge they are not technically clients). The result off this method of training is a high attrition rate of students who are not willing or able to invest enough time and effort.

    I hope this goes some way to reassure you that as students who are then accepted on to case work we are the few who are willing to invest beyond what may be expected to enhance our CVs, respect our wider responsibilities and, as you stated above, to ‘learn by doing’.

    As regards the Cardiff Innocence Project’s own commitment to Miscarriage of Justice Casework, their cessation from INUK and past disagreements should not worry you; their diligence and widely respected commitment is clear and requires no ‘excuse’ or ‘blame’ apportionment. Certainly before my involvement sleeves have already been pulled up and, if I may extend your other metaphor, the trenches are well dug and regular sorties are being made.

    In respect of ‘constructive discussions’ I was recently in attendance and took a part in the ‘Innocence Ten’ conference where the way forward was discussed and examined in great detail based on the experiences and requirements of those currently involved in casework. I can also confirm that there was no ill-feeling or blame or ‘INUK bashing’ in evidence and the prevailing attitude was positive and enthusiastic. The network proposal which you term the ‘CLEO grouping’ will not have a ‘forefront’ or ‘helm’ as you suggest, the intention is for an equal partnership with each partner taking an active role in the basic network administration.

    I have no intention of speculating on why INUK did not work, I simply state INUK did not work, you notice I do not apportion any blame, I care little who or what was at fault, if any. I derive this opinion from myself, from the other miscarriage of justice units and from clients (see above) submitting their cases for investigation. What does a prisoner care about pro/anti INUK opinions?

    In response to your ‘challenge’ to ‘stop looking backwards’, looking backwards positively is necessary so that lessons can be learned in moving forward, from my perspective the only negative ‘looking back’ evidenced in the above comments comes from yourself. Your opinions are also somewhat contradictory. For example, you requested that Julie Price and the other miscarriage of justice organisations involve you in future discussions and Julie Price offered to do just that; this, in your view, is somehow ‘too little too late’. I fail to understand this, how would your collaboration be too little too late in our wider responsibilities to clients (see above) and the development of a Miscarriage of Justice network? You are correct if you mean by this that it is too little too late for INUK collaboration but we are looking forward, not back, and hope that you are willing to be a part of this.

    I would like to end this by saying that I have nothing but respect for those involved in the fight for justice for those who have suffered miscarriages of justice and your work in this field is well documented. I intend my future career to be in this field, and I draw much personal inspiration from persons such as yourself and intend to follow your continued contributions with a great deal of interest.

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