Whilst acknowledging ‘the continued excellent work’ of the
Commission, the tailored review of the CCRC revealed that its referral rates were at an
alarming low-point. Out of all applications that the CCRC has received since
1997, 3.3% have been referred to the Court of Appeal. However, only 2.2% of
applications were referred in 2014-15 and that proportion fell below 1% in
2016-17. In the period from April until December 2017, the slump continued,
with just 0.5% of all applications resulting in a referral.
Over the CCRC’s 22-year lifespan, it has referred an average
of 33 cases per year. In 2016-17, just 12 cases were referred back to the Court
of Appeal. Last year, that figure rose only
marginally to 19 cases. The review quoted a solicitor who expressed concern
that ‘its referral rate is quickly moving towards the point of vanishing’.
Commenting on the feedback from the tailored review, the
CCRC chair Helen Pitcher said that ‘the number of cases we refer for appeal,
while clearly very important, should not be the be-all-and-end-all of the
‘I think perhaps too little attention is paid to the other
outcomes of the Commission’s work, such as the considerable value we bring to
the justice system in the de facto audit of the safety of convictions and
correctness of sentences in each case we consider but do not refer, and the
feedback we provide and warnings we give to other parts of the justice system
when we see worrying trends.’ Helen Pitcher OBE
The CCRC was set up as a direct result of a royal commission
launched on the day that the so called Birmingham Six were set free.
The Runciman commission called for a new body to ‘consider allegations put to
it that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred… and, where there are
reasons for supposing that a miscarriage of justice might have occurred, to
refer the case to the Court of Appeal’.
Paddy Hill spent 16 years in prison wrongly convicted in
relation to the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. ‘The CCRC was set up in order to
overcome the failure of the UK judicial system in its approach to miscarriages
of justice. Its purpose was to examine intractable cases that couldn’t rely on
the appeals process as it stood,’ Hill told the Justice Gap yesterday.
Paddy Hill, who is also founder of MOJO, noted that whilst
the process of review was ‘part of their function, it’s not an end in itself’.
‘If the CCRC fails to properly investigate, or refer these
cases to the Court of Appeal then it is, by definition, not fit for purpose.
After all, we are all aware that the problem of wrongful conviction hasn’t gone
away. The problem lies in the CCRC’s failure to properly use the investigation
powers they have. In an ideal world, anyone who suffers an injustice should be
able to seek redress but the CCRC’s resources and powers should always be used
on the cases of those who are serving long term prison sentences as opposed to
the cases of those who may have a problem related to their asylum status or
even dangerous dog cases.’ Paddy Hill
This is the second time in recent months that the CCRC has
sought to argue that it should not be judged solely on the number of referrals.
In last year’s annual report, chief exec Karen Kneller seemed to suggest that most
applicants were more concerned with waiting times than having their convictions
overturned. ‘Outside of the Commission people tend to focus on the number of
referrals that we make or, even more narrowly, on a tiny handful of high
profile cases. Inside the Commission we know that for the majority of our
applicants who are unrepresented, the most important thing is the time taken to
work on their case and the time we take to complete it.’
Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the all party parliamentary
group on miscarriages, said it was ‘important to remember that the CCRC was set
up after years of campaigning by politicians, journalists, lawyers and the
victims of miscarriages of justice and their families’. ‘We fought for a
miscarriage of justice watchdog with real bite. A body that would make sure
that innocent men and women were not left rotting in prison. We didn’t fight
for an “audit” body. The number of referrals has dropped off a cliff. Why?’
Helen Pitcher cited the tailored review together with major
new research by Professor Carolyn Hoyle and associate professor Mai Sato (Reasons
to doubt) as demonstrating that the commission was ‘a fundamentally sound
organisation which performs its core function – the investigation of alleged
miscarriages of justice – not only efficiently and effectively, but also
thoroughly and with skill, diligence, professionalism and integrity’.
Pitcher said criticism of the Commission often came
from people who argued ‘that in this or that particular case the CCRC has been
sloppy, unprofessional or careless… . Some have argued that the Commission is
not “fit for purpose”.’ She made the point out that the review did not
find ‘anything whatsoever to support the more outlandish accusations of
corruption and bias’ that were ‘occasionally levelled at the Commission’.
Barry Sheerman said that the concerns about the CCRC raised
through the APPG were rarely to do with allegations of corruption and more to
do with a ‘beleaguered and overwhelmed’ body struggling to do its job because
it was being ‘starved of funds’. ‘What we are concerned about is the lack of
cases going back to the Court of Appeal and the quality of investigation,’ he
Louise Shorter, the journalist who runs the charity Inside
Justice which investigates miscarriages, said that the tailored review
flagged up ‘areas which should be of serious concern to the CCRC:
improvements to consistency of casework; ensuring updates are sufficiently
detailed; monitoring hours spent per case’. ‘A meeting of the all party
parliamentary group on miscarriages was convened the day before this report
came out and revealed the extent to which anger and frustration was expressed
by lawyers, campaigners and academics working in this field. The CCRC needs to
address these points in the interests of justice.’
According to the Hoyle and Sato’s new book Reasons to
Doubt, the CCRC has experienced the biggest budget cuts in real terms across
the entire criminal justice system. Dr Hannah Quirk, a reader in criminal law
at King’s College London, observed on Twitter that this was the ‘biggest omission’ from the review.
The Hoyle and Sato study is the result of a major four year
empirical study. The authors conclude that the CCRC is ‘not a perfect
organisation. It has more variability than most applicants would be happy with,
it remains a little more cautious in its referrals than it may need to be, it
is sometimes too slow and ponderous.’ However, they argue ‘it is a whole lot
better than its predecessor’ – C3, the widely discredited Home Office unit.
Although, as the Justice Gap has reported before, in 2017 the CCRC
referred fewer cases in percentage terms than C3 in its final years.
The book closes with a twin message:
‘It would be nothing short of an own goal for critics to
fight to remove the commission from our struggling criminal justice system or
for the government to fail fund it adequately for the task at hand.’
Changing the watchdog’s remit to remove cases dealt with
summarily and sentence only cases would require primary legislation. ‘If the
legislation was changed to remove the requirement, the CCRC’s caseload would
decrease significantly,’ the review noted. Last year one in 10 of all
applications were dealt with summarily and represented 5% of referrals; and
sentence-only cases made up 15% of applications and 17% of referrals.
The review considers seven key performance indicators which
mainly relate to its ability to hit various deadlines. Only one of seven KPIs
addresses quality and that is assessed by three measures: judicial reviews;
complaints; and quality assurance. ‘The performance measures seem to be limited
to meeting processing targets rather than actually looking at the quality of
investigations,’ one service user told the review. ‘The measures and any
relevant KPI’s focus on delivery of cases, but there should be an equal range
of measures aimed at successful delivery of investigations and decisions, said
another solicitor. According to the review, the quality KPI was ‘on the whole’
Under the body’s governing statute, the Criminal Appeals Act
specifies that the CCRC must have 11 commissioners at any one time. The review
noted that during the period of its investigation the CCRC had begun to move
away from ‘substantive part or full-time Commissioners to appointing new
Commissioners on a fee-paid basis’. The review team said that this might lead
to recruiting more commissioners (only nine are listed on their site). It
expressed concern that that this would ‘exacerbate existing issues’ around
governance and noted that ‘a disproportionate amount of Commissioner time’ was
spent on governance and not casework.
Three commissioners are needed to approve any referral that
the CCRC makes. Speaking at the end of last year at the Criminal Appeals
Lawyers Association (CALA) conference, Dr Sharon Persaud, whose tenure as a
commissioner had just ended, revealed the extent of the shift away from
full-time commissioners towards part-timers on a fee-paid basis. ‘The cuts have
meant that when I arrived at the Commission [in 2013], there’s a statutory
minimum of 11 commissioners and it was 8.6 full-time equivalent commissioners.
As I leave, it’s 2.6 full-time commissioners.’
As Dr Persaud went on to explain: ‘When the CCRC was set up,
the budget was £7.5 million and the Commission had 800 cases.’ The contrast
with today’s situation is stark: ‘now, the Commission has 1,500 cases and the
budget is £5.4 million, which means that for every £10 there was at the Commission,
there’s £4 now per case.’
Additional reporting by Jon Robins.
Will is a journalist and writes for the Justice Gap, on which site this article first appeared, reproduced here with thanks.