MPs have today called upon the miscarriage of justice watchdog to be ‘less cautious’ and refer more cases back to the Court of Appeal. ‘If a bolder approach leads to five more failed appeals but one additional miscarriage being corrected, then that is of clear benefit,’ said the House of Commons’ justice committee. You can read the report here.
The justice committee has called upon the government to stump up an additional £1 million a year ‘as a matter of urgency’ for the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) which has suffered a 30% budget cut alongside a 70% increase in applications.
The committee’s inquiry revealed the extent of the CCRC funding problems. The CCRC chair Richard Foster told MPs that ‘for every £10 that my predecessor had to spend on a case a decade ago, I have £4 today’ which (Foster said) amounted to ‘the biggest cut that has taken place anywhere in the criminal justice system.’
Whilst the justice committee’s remit was the CCRC, many of the witnesses expressed their frustration at the reluctance of the Court of Appeal to acknowledge miscarriages of justice.
As reported here, Cardiff University’s submission, which was backed by 18 academics at other universities as well as others, called upon MPs to examine the Tony Stock case which has been to the Court of Appeal on four separate occasions and is widely seen to be a self evident miscarriage of justice.
The view was summed up by campaigner Paul May (as quoted in the report). ‘Much of the criticism levelled at the CCRC would in my view be better directed at the Court of Appeal which remains capable on occasions of quite breath-taking obduracy towards appellants claiming wrongful conviction.’
‘When the CCRC was set up there were high expectations of what it could achieve, and in general it has done a good job, but in the most difficult cases it is dependent on the willingness of the Court of Appeal to revisit the verdict of a jury,’ said committee chair Sir Alan Beith. The court was ‘understandably reluctant’ to do this unless there was new evidence or a fault in the original trial ‘and this leaves some verdicts over which serious doubt has arisen without any chance of reconsideration’.
The MPs have now called upon the Law Commission to review the Court of Appeal’s grounds for allowing appeals and to specifically look at whether there needs to be a change in the law to ‘allow and encourage’ the Court to quash a conviction where it has a serious doubt about the verdict even without fresh evidence or fresh legal argument.
The judiciary was invited to respond to criticisms but (in the words of MPs) ‘declined to comment or provide evidence on anything more than factual matters’. However at the end of the inquiry, the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge did make a submission. Judge took issue with Professor Michael Zander QC’s proposal for adding to the CCRC’s grounds for referral.
‘Just because the CCRC is a respected body, even if, on examination, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the CCRC and dismissed the appeal, public confidence in that verdict would never be restored. From the public point of view, whatever the true constitutional position might be, there would be two conflicting decisions by bodies with responsibility for considering the safety of a conviction.’
For years, critics have called upon the CCRC to lower its 70% success rate (i.e., the proportion of referrals being overturned) to better reflect the real possibility test – that call has now been echoed by the justice committee.
Overall the CCRC received the qualified backing of MPs. ‘We conclude that the CCRC is performing its functions reasonably well,’ they said. The number of successful referrals which showed that the CCRC remained ‘as necessary a body now as when it was set up’, they concluded. However, the committee expressed concern at the variation of quality between case review managers ‘both in approach and in terms of expertise’.
‘We received very little evidence advocating its abolition, and even its strongest critics have said that they simply want it to improve. The existence of the CCRC is not enough in and of itself; it must be given the resources and powers it requires to perform its job effectively. The fundamental constitutional principle on which our criminal justice system rests and which the Commission exists to uphold is that the guilty are convicted and the innocent go free.’
That said, the MPs were struck by ‘the disparity between what critics believe it to be doing and what it claims that it is doing’. ‘At times there was complete disagreement, even on objective and factual matters,’ the committee said; adding that that difference of opinion indicated that ‘at the very least the CCRC has a problem with public perception’. ‘The CCRC will never convince its most vociferous detractors, but it could be doing more to ensure that its work and processes are well understood,’ it added.
As a consequence of the funding problems at the CCRC, the committee noted that there were increasing delays. The average waiting time after an application to the start of a review is eight months for an applicant in custody and 13 months if not. The MPs cited the case of Eddie Gilfoyle which was ‘still undergoing investigation, four and a half years after application’. This delay was (the MPs noted) described by Paul May who is chairing the campaign as a ‘disgrace’.
The delays were ‘unacceptable and must be brought down’, the MPs said. ‘We recommend that the CCRC should, as a matter of urgency, be granted the additional £1 million of annual funding that it has requested until it has reduced its backlog.’
The report made clear the frustration expressed by MPs at the repeated failure of governments to bolster the CCRC’s section 17 powers to force public bodies to release documents and materials. ‘We could see no good reason as to why it has not been introduced, considering it has universal support and would require only a single clause. No new Criminal Justice Bill should be introduced in the next Parliament without it,’ said Sir Alan
Justice Committee’s verdict
We conclude that the CCRC is performing its functions reasonably well, and we have identified areas for improvement, but we were struck by the disparity between what critics believe it to be doing and what it claims that it is doing. At times there was complete disagreement, even on objective and factual matters. This indicates that at the very least the CCRC has a problem with public perception, including with the awareness of applicants as to what it can do for them and of all stakeholders, including applicants, their representatives, and others, as to how it operates. The CCRC will never convince its most vociferous detractors, but it could be doing more to ensure that its work and processes are well understood.
The level of successful referrals from the CCRC shows that it remains as necessary a body now as when it was set up. We received very little evidence advocating its abolition, and even its strongest critics have said that they simply want it to improve. The existence of the CCRC is not enough in and of itself; it must be given the resources and powers it requires to perform its job effectively. The fundamental constitutional principle on which our criminal justice system rests and which the Commission exists to uphold is that the guilty are convicted and the innocent go free.