September 21 2023

Only one in 10 applicants to miscarriage of justice watchdog has lawyer

Only one in 10 applicants to miscarriage of justice watchdog has lawyer

The CCRC was set up as a result of a royal commission on the day the Birmingham Six walked free

The miscarriage of justice watchdog referred 26 cases to the Court of Appeal last year including eight of which related to the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which marks its 25th anniversary this evening at event in the House of Commons, reports that it has on average referred 32 cases a year since it launched in 1997. Five years ago the  number of referrals crashed dramatically to just 12 referrals leading to concerns about the watchdog’s performance and a parliamentary investigation calling on the body to be bolder.

In its latest annual report published yesterday, the CCRC reports that it has made 18 ‘non-Post Office’ referrals last year compared to the 19 such referrals in 2020/21 when the CCRC referred a bumper number of cases, 71, however the vast majority (51) came from the Horizon debacle and a further six related to a second single case (Shrewsbury 24) that had been initially rejected by the CCRC. The CCRC claimed that ‘more than one miscarriage of justice overturned every week this year’ on the basis that 57 referrals for both convictions and sentences were successful.

‘No system is foolproof and there will always be errors in criminal justice, so we encourage anybody who has new evidence casting doubt on their conviction to apply for our free investigation service,’ said CCRC Chairman Helen Pitcher OBE.

‘We anticipate that post-pandemic our applications will increase, due to pent-up demand in prisons, greater activity through the criminal courts and the longer-term plan for more police officers and more prison spaces.’

The number of applications to the CCRC has dropped significantly – it received 1,198 applications last year and 1,142 applications the year before – down from an average of 1,400 a year. Most CCRC referrals relate to convictions for serious offences, including rape and other crimes of violence. Murder alone accounts for more than one in five of all referrals (22%).

The report highlights a lack of support for applicants from lawyers – only one in 10 applicants was legallly represented. According to the CCRC, the proportion of unrepresented applicants has climbed to around 90% from an historical average closer to 70%.

‘Many of the most significant and high-profile miscarriages of justice cases in recent decades have been resolved by way of our referrals for appeal,’ said the CCRC. ‘However, historically, most of our referrals have a minimal public profile and have received limited interest from the media or from miscarriage of justice campaigners.’

The All Party-Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice commissioned the inquiry into the CCRC, known as the Westminster Commission, flagged concerns that the watchdog’s independence had been undermined by the government ‘unlawful interference’ – specifically over changes in tenure to commissioners who have been moved salaried jobs to minimum one-day-a-week contracts. The Westminster Commission heard that the overall level of commissioner resource fell from 8.8 full time equivalent posts in 2014 to just two and a half by 2019.

The CCRC defended its position insisting that fee-paid commissioner role meant ‘we can attract a really high calibre of candidates’. ‘The ability to flex up days offered to the CCRC to match the fluctuations in our workload also ensures greater efficiency of our operations. It has also had a positive impact on diversity,’ the report said.

The Birmingham-based group has also moved premises to s smaller ‘office hub’ and introduced a ‘remote-first’ policy meaning that staff, including case review managers, work from home. Critics of the CCRC have long highlighted ‘cultural problems’ at the CCRC including the criticism that case review managers are ‘deskbound’, reluctant to leave desks and investigate cases, and now query whether homeworking will improve the quality of their investigations especially when overseen by part-time commissioners.

25 years of the CCRC in numbers

  • Since 1997, the CCRC has referred 788 cases to the appeal courts
  • An average referral rate of around 32 cases per year
  • So far the CCRC has completed  27,823 cases completed
  • 539 appeals have succeeded and 217 failed
  • Murder alone accounts for 22% of all referrals