July 23 2024
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Something has to give

Something has to give

The number of applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (the CCRC) is up this year from an annual total of a thousand a year to 1500.

The first thing to say about this huge surge in the workload is that it demonstrates a rare and commendable concern for justice. The CCRC has specifically sought out these extra applicants. In the light of statistics about levels of literacy and educational attainment in prisons, the CCRC decided to redesign its application form and written materials. After consulting people with dyslexia and literacy issues it designed an Easy Read application form, using simpler words and pictures for people who have difficulty reading and writing, the initiative promoted through an article in the prison magazine Inside Time.

The standard form had already won the Crystal Mark for clarity and ease of comprehension, so this is truly an effort to go the extra mile – and a reproach to those who claim the CCRC just wants to shovel its way through its daunting backlog as quickly as possible.

It will also, inevitably, increase the strains on this underfunded organisation, wretchedly neglected by Government and under persistent sniping from its critics – to say nothing of the awkward and unasked-for advice proffered by candid friends like myself.

The CCRC’s funding has fallen by 30% in real terms in the last six years; 2005/6’s £8.5 million in current money is now shrunk to £5.9million. The number of key staff to process and investigate these applications – the case review managers (CRMs) – has fallen from 50 ten years ago to today’s fulltime equivalent of 33. Numbers fell by 6% in the last year alone, two senior CRMs taking redundancy.

There is now one investigations officer instead of two, and the same goes for the legal officers. The decision-taking commissioners have been operating well beneath their statutory minimum for more than two years; a new recruitment exercise – offering terms and conditions inferior to those already in post – may make up some of the shortfall, but with the best will in the world it will take time for them to be up to speed. There has been a move to more austere Birmingham premises, where all staff and commissioners work in an open-plan office, a call-centre environment which is not always conducive to clear or productive thinking.

Something has to give
Clearly, the waiting lists – which were coming down – will no longer be able to sustain their steady decline. I always thought that the CCRC paid too much attention to its waiting lists; we can all trot out the ‘justice delayed’ mantra, but the brute fact is that if you are trying to do the same job on scarcer resources something has got to give in terms of thoroughness – and I had rather it wasn’t justice. Concern over the queues – and what the benchmarking KPI bean counters at the MoJ would make of them – drove the CCRC into a distracting preoccupation with process.

The 50% increase will also prove a severe test for the commission in terms of those cases it actively investigates. A harsh system of triage separates the apparent no-hopers at the outset, and only a minority of cases are investigated beyond a desktop review of the papers. The likeliest casualties in this process are already acknowledged to be those applicants who are not legally represented; will easier application, but without professional representation, really affect outcomes in the way the CCRC, presumably, hopes?

Well, there’s one way of telling. CCRC referrals to the Court of Appeal were generally reckoned to represent about 4% of applications (in other words, it’s an organisation which disappoints 96% of its customers). Current figures are skewed by a number of historic Northern Irish cases, but the rate now is reckoned to be down to about 2.8%.

I am sure statisticians will laugh (if their grim trade permits them such levity) but with a 50% increase in applications, shouldn’t we expect a 50% increase in referrals?

The landscape of miscarriages of justice is changing fast. Sam Hallam’s campaign was a creature of the Facebook age, based on community campaigning and Twitter, and unassisted by any mainstream press and television backing (another respect in which traditional journalism is falling even further behind the pace). The CCRC’s initiative, in the midst of an evolving and perfectly proper concern about its own remit and its role, shows an urgency to change and engage which is as refreshing to its friends as it is surprising to its critics.

Let’s hope it becomes a habit.

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