The independent state-funded body set up to investigate miscarriages of justice has suffered more than any other part of the criminal justice system under the austerity cuts, MPs were told.
Richard Foster, chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), told the House of Commons’ justice committee that there had been no allowance for inflation for the Birmingham-based watchdog for over a decade. ‘For every £10 that my predecessor had to spend on a case a decade ago, I have £4 today,’ Foster said in the final session of the committee’s inquiry into the CCRC. The report is expected this month.
The CCRC had suffered ‘the biggest cut that has taken place anywhere in the criminal justice system’, Richard Foster said. However, he also pointed out that the number of applications to the body, which has only 50 staff and a budget of £5.2m, had ‘exploded’ over the last two years. There has been a 60% increase in applications compared to the previous 10 years.
According to Foster, it takes a year to get a new recruit fully trained and ‘three or four’ of its staff are presently on one-year contracts. They will be out of their jobs next month if the Commission, which received an extra £500,000 last year, doesn’t receive more cash.
Foster said that the CCRC needed just £1m – 0.1% of the Ministry of Justice’s £9bn budget or the price of a Tomahawk, he added – to clear the growing backlog of prisoners alleging to be victims miscarriages of justice.
‘I am quite certain that if the rest of the public sector had been able to absorb cuts of that kind, austerity would be a thing of the past and we would no longer be worrying about the deficit.’
Into the blackhole
Earlier in the session Paul May, who has been involved in numerous campaigns from the Birmingham Six through to Eddie Gilfoyle and Colin Norris, told MPs that CCRC seemed to accept delay ‘almost as an immutable law of nature’. Four and a half years have now passed since new evidence had been presented to the Commission in the case of Eddie Gilfoyle, and, despite assurances from the Commission, they still had not decided whether it will refer. ‘We say that is a disgrace,’ said May, who chairs the support group.
May also said that the CCRC was often ‘unduly secretive’. ‘To give a very quick example, again in Eddie Gilfoyle’s case, Lord Hunt of Wirral, who is one of Eddie’s more prominent supporters, was advised in writing that the commission had brought in a QC to advise on the case. The commission hadn’t told Mr Gilfoyle’s solicitor, let alone Mr Gilfoyle,’ he said.
The veteran campaigning journalist Bob Woffinden described the CCRC as ‘an almost complete failure’. He made the point that the advent of the CCRC meant that the press had become disengaged from the issue of wrongful conviction. Cases he said ‘disappeared into a black hole and were not heard about for years’.
In his submission to the committee, Woffinden said that the setting up of the CCRC had ‘a paralysing effect on the justice debate in this country’ (here).
‘The media have become uninterested in publishing reports about miscarriages of justice, primarily because they appreciate that their reports would be followed not by administrative action but, seemingly, by inertia. Cases now spend years hidden from public scrutiny while they are examined by the CCRC,’
Woffinden argued that the existence of the CCRC ‘institutionalises miscarriages of justice’ in the UK. ‘It creates the impression that we are content to continue with a fallible criminal trial system because we have the semblance of a process offering ex post facto rectification,’ he said.
Paul May in his submission (here) argued that that the CCRC had ‘largely fulfilled – and in some respects exceeded’ the Runciman Commission’s expectations. He took issue with the criticism of the watchdog that its case review managers tended to conduct desk-bound ‘passive’ investigations. He cited the case of Sam Hallam’s where the CCRC’s investigation went ‘well beyond’ the issues initially submitted and the ongoing case of Colin Norris.
‘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. Like every public body, the CCRC is fallible but it should be acknowledged that five times the number of convictions have been referred back to the courts since the Commission was established. More than two thirds of referrals have resulted in quashed convictions. The CCRC is far from perfect but it represents a major improvement over its lamentable predecessor.’
The session also focused on the last two government’s failure to address the erosion of the CCRC’s section 17 powers to force public bodies to release documents and materials.
The MPs made clear their frustration that an issue that could have been fixed years ago simply by bunging in an extra clause to one of the many criminal justice bills that had been passed in recent years, had not. The justice minister Mike Penning said that they did not have ‘a primary legislative vehicle’ at the moment but they were ‘quite determined in the next Parliament’ to do so.
Was it a collective failure on the part of successive ministers? asked Labour MP John McDonnell. The minister didn’t think so. ‘You have to prioritise the legislation that you want to bring through,’ Penning added.