The head of the miscarriage of justice watchdog has called on ministers for £1m extra funding to increase the number of case workers with the expectation that any new money must be ‘ring-fenced’ from extra demand caused by more applications as a result of the Horizon Post Office scandal. The House of Common’s justice committee shone more light on the long term funding crisis at the Criminal Cases Review Commission with MPs hearing the group was struggling to recruit experienced case workers and that its fee for commissioners was one third that of comparable roles.
In response to questions from MPs, the CCRC chair Helen Pitcher said that she and chief executive Karen Kneller had been ‘very clear about what we need’ in talks with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ and that the recent Westminster Commission report was ‘also very clear in its recommendations. ‘Both Karen and I said we needed at least another million, and that was before we realised the magnitude of the Post Office issue,’ she added.
Earlier in the year a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice reckoned that the group has suffered the ‘biggest cut’ of any part of the criminal justice however as long ago as 2008 the group’s then chair Graham Zellick went on the record about the urgent financial problems. The Westminster Commission revealed that the CCRC received just £5.93m in 2019 compared to £9.24m in 2004. Its report reveals that the average workload for case review managers climbed from 12.5 in 2010 to 27 in 2017.
The CCRC is presently waiting for confirmation of increased funding from the MoJ. ‘We want both to protect and enhance the casework frontline so we can have more case review managers and more commissioners, but we also want to do more outreach and engagement work so that people who need our services are aware of us and can find us,’ said Kneller. She added added: ‘If we do get several hundred more Post Office cases, we will be going straight back to the MOJ to say we need to ring-fence funding to deal with that’.
‘It is still quite shocking that many members of the legal profession are unaware of our existence or do not quite understand the role that we play. That is down to us. It is down to having the resourcing to do that. We absolutely need more funding.’
Labour MP Maria Eagle raised concerns over the change in commissioners’ tenure from generous salaries to a relatively modest day rate (£358) as a result of a controversial MoJ review. Those concerns led to the Westminster commission calling on the watchdog to ‘demonstrate its independence’ from government.
Pitcher gave a robust defence of the changes. ‘There is a myth that goes around that says commissioners are on one day a week. That is not true,’ she said. In her words, commissioners ‘flex up’ according to demand and that was ‘enormously helpful for us when we have issues such as the Post Office, Shrewsbury 24, and a couple of other linked cases where we need more commissioner time’. ‘That is why we have referred more cases in the last financial year than we have ever done before,’ she insisted.
She also claimed that the new arrangements increased commissioners’ independence. The changes were resisted by former commissioners who have since left the CCRC on the basis that they compromised their independence. Not so, according to Pitcher: ‘My argument would be that, if the organisation is your sole employer for pay and rations, that could lead to a slowing down and a caution in your decision making, which we do not want as an organisation and we do not support.’
The Tory MP Dr Kieran Mullan asked them about a 30% drop in commissioner days over the last year. Pitcher dismissed concerns saying that drop ‘reflected case loads’. ‘Where the rubber will hit the road is as we get more and more cases, which we anticipate not only in relation to the Post Office but we anticipate that there could be more claims of miscarriages of justice because of the delay in cases coming to court for prosecution, witnesses’ memories fading and so on,’ she continued. ‘We would need significantly more funding as that unfolds, and we really anticipate it will unfold post pandemic and also in relation to the Post Office.’
However Pitcher acknowledged that commissioners’ day rate was an issue. ‘My commissioners will freely admit that the other elements of their portfolio fund underpin the money they get from the CCRC, and that cannot be right,’ she said. Luckily, they are all passionate about miscarriages of justice and do it because they believe in our core purpose, not because of what they actually receive in remuneration.’
The CCRC’s chief exec said that the commissioners’ fee had dropped behind comparable roles, when pressed as to how much Karen Kneller said ‘probably a good quarter or a third. We are talking a substantial uplift, in my view.’
Case review manager Miles Trent was asked about whether he felt overly-constrained by the CCRCs ‘real possibility test’ – the group can only send a case back to the Appeal judges if they are satisfied there is a ‘real possibility’ that the court will over turn it. The Westminster commission has called for that test to be reviewed over long standing concerns it was making the commission too deferential. ‘That is the easiest question I have been asked all day,’ Trent replied. ‘I and all the other case review managers would answer the same. We are not sitting around saying, “If it was not for this pesky real possibility test, I would have this case referred.” Case reviewers do not feel the wording inhibits us.’