COMMONS

Criminal Cases Review Commission must get resources and powers required

25 March 2015

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is functioning reasonably well but is struggling to cope with a sharp increase in its workload alongside low resource levels, concludes the Justice Committee in its report, published Wednesday 25 March.

The CCRC investigates alleged miscarriages of justice and can refer cases to the Court of Appeal. The Committee says that it is as necessary as ever, but that its work has been hampered by a lack of resources and deficiencies in some of its powers.

The Committee has also identified a number of areas where the CCRC could improve, including in its investigations and in improving public awareness and understanding of its work and place in the criminal justice system.

The 'real possibility' test

The CCRC may refer a case to the Court of Appeal if it thinks that there is a real possibility that the conviction or sentence will not be upheld. The interaction between the 'real possibility' test and the Court of Appeal's reluctance to go behind a jury verdict creates difficulties for the CCRC in referring some cases, especially in the absence of fresh evidence. This may be leading to some miscarriages of justice going uncorrected.

The Committee recommends that the Law Commission conduct a review of the Court of Appeal's grounds for allowing appeals. This includes looking at the current application of the constitutional doctrine of the primacy of the jury.

If such a review leads to a change then there should be a subsequent review of the 'real possibility' test in light of it. In the meantime, the Committee recommends that the CCRC be less cautious in its application of the test. The CCRC should err on the side of making a referral if in doubt about a case.

Chair's comments

Committee Chairman, Sir Alan Beith MP, said:

"When the CCRC was set up there were high expectations of what it could achieve, and in general it has done a good job, but in the most difficult cases it is dependent on the willingness of the Court of Appeal to revisit the verdict of a jury.

The Court is understandably reluctant to do this unless there is new evidence or a clear fault in the original court process, and this leaves some verdicts over which serious doubt has arisen without any chance of reconsideration because there is no real possibility of success at the Court of Appeal, and the CCRC sees no benefit in sending them to the Court.

There were sharp differences of view among our witnesses on this issue, but we believe that the Law Commission needs to review it."

Resources

The CCRC faced a 30 per cent budget cut alongside a 70 per cent in applications. The result has been that it has become under-resourced, leading to increasing and unacceptable delays.

The Committee recommends that it be given an extra £1 million of annual funding until these delays are reduced. To focus its limited resources on more deserving cases, the CCRC should also be given a statutory discretion to refuse to investigate in some categories of cases where to investigate would not be in the public interest.

Section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995

The CCRC has the power to require public bodies to disclose documents to it for its investigations, but this power has never applied to private bodies. With private bodies performing more functions traditionally performed by public bodies, this lack of power has hindered the CCRC in some of its investigations. It should be a matter of urgency for the next Government to extend the power to private bodies. The CCRC’s enforcement options for this power should also be increased.

Sir Alan Beith said:

"There has been a failure by successive Governments to grant the CCRC an obvious and much-needed power to require private bodies to disclose documents to it.

We could see no good reason as to why it has not been introduced, considering it has universal support and would require only a single clause. No new Criminal Justice Bill should be introduced in the next Parliament without it."

Investigations and the criminal justice system

The quality of the CCRC’s investigations varies depending on who is running it. The Committee was concerned by this and concludes that the CCRC must be more intelligent in how it assigns Case Review Managers to investigations. It also needs to engage more fully with applicants, such as by meeting with applicants more often.

Witnesses to the inquiry told the Committee how lessons learned from these investigations about the causes of miscarriages of justice were not being fed back into the criminal justice system. The Committee therefore recommends that the CCRC should take advantage of its unique position and develop a formal system for feeding back.

Further information

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