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Criminal Cases Review Commission must be reformed, say campaigners

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

This article is republished on CCRC Watch 10 years after it first appeared in The Guardian. It is as relevant today as the day it was published. The important question remains: When will the CCRC be reformed or replaced so that ALL innocent victims can, and will, have their wrongful convictions overturned.

Lawyers and former CCRC members list 45 cases of 'plausible' claims of innocence that have had applications turned down

Sandra Laville The Guardian. Tue 27 Mar 2012 16.33 BST

Innocent people wrongly convicted of serious crimes are being routinely failed by the body set up to investigate miscarriages of justice, according to lawyers and campaigners. They will call this week for urgent reform of the Criminal Cases Review Commission – set up in the wake of high profile miscarriages of justice including the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four – on the 15th anniversary of the formation of the independent review body.

The campaigners – who include lawyers and former members of the CCRC – have released to the Guardian a list of 45 cases of individuals whom they say have a plausible claim of innocence, but have had applications to the CCRC turned down.

Michael Naughton, senior law lecturer at Bristol University and founder of the Innocence Network UK, which is running the campaign, said drastic reform was needed because the CCRC was not fit for purpose. "The CCRC was supposed to be the extra safeguard for innocent victims of miscarriages of justice that are failed by the court of appeal," he said. "The CCRC needs to be independent of the court of appeal so that it can focus on whether applicants are innocent or guilty as was intended by the royal commission that recommended it be set up."

In response the CCRC, which has publicly highlighted how its funding has been cut back for several years, pointed to its "considerable achievements" over the last 15 years. Its deputy chair, Alastair MacGregor QC, said that 320 of the 480 convictions referred by the commission to the court of appeal in 15 years have been successfully overturned.

Other statistics, however, show that every year the CCRC on average rejects 96% of applications from individuals claiming they have been wrongfully convicted. Naughton and others argue many of the cases rejected involve legitimate claims of innocence which are not being investigated by the miscarriage of justice body. Among those due to speak at the campaign launch on Friday is Michael Zander, a member of the Runciman royal commission which recommended the body be set up after the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, all of whom were wrongfully convicted of being involved in the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s. Zander believes the CCRC is generally fulfilling its brief but should make more use of a little known power to refer cases to the court of appeal even when no new evidence has been uncovered, if there is a serious doubt about the conviction.

"They could exercise this power more, I think," Zander said in an interview. "Innocent people are in the greatest of difficulties once they have been convicted. It is not always the case that something new can be found, even with the best will in the world and all the investigations that can be mustered.

"So it is very important that the CCRC which has this power to use in exceptional cases exercises it. It is not an attack on the jury system to do so and the royal commission said that." He also noted that individuals in prison are not receiving visits from the body as part of investigations. (A corollary of Zander's point is that there can be heavy reliance on paper analysis of the evidence.)

The miscarriage of justice body mounts reviews of cases where it considers there is a "real possibility" that the conviction will be overturned on referral to the court of appeal. But some criminal lawyers say it is too negatively interpreting the meaning of "real possibility" and leaving hundreds of people to languish in prison with no one to investigate their innocence. Others – including Naughton – are calling for the "real possibility" requirement to be abolished. Speakers at a campaign launch symposium on Friday include Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, and Laurie Elks, a former CCRC commissioner, who believes the organisation has "lost its edge".

MacGregor, deputy chair of the CCRC – which pointed out it had not been invited to the symposium – admitted the current system did sometimes fail victims of miscarriages of justice and it was important to press for improvements. "The commission makes no claim to perfection," said MacGregor. "It does suggest that those who express concerns … should first acknowledge its considerable achievements."He said the "real possibility" test was imposed by parliament, and questioned what purpose would be served by referring cases to the court of appeal where there was no real possibility that the convictions would be quashed. He also said there was a cost issue, in terms of credibility, of referring cases where there was no real possibility of the conviction being overturned. He did however call for changes to allow the commission to be empowered to obtain material from private as well as public bodies, when investigating cases.

The campaign to reform the CCRC follows criticism from others outside of Innocence Network UK, including Vera Baird QC, the former solicitor general, and criminal barrister John Cooper, QC.

Cooper said the CCRC needed to be more bullish. "The commission is too hesitant in challenging the position of the court of appeal and they interpret the legislation around 'real possibility' too pessimistically," he said. "There is growing concern amongst rank and file lawyers and the families of people in prison that the CCRC doesn't seem to be up for the fight." But Cooper – like others – acknowledges the body has had repeated budget cuts since it was set up. It now receives £5.9m a year.

He said: "If a fraction of the money given to the Crown Prosecution Service was siphoned off to the CCRC I suspect they would be able to function better."

• This article was amended on 29 March 2012 and 3 April 2012. The original said that Michael Zander was among those with "concerns about the CCRC"; he contacted the Guardian to say he does not have concerns, and that over-reliance on paper analysis of the evidence is not a criticism he has regarding the CCRC. In addition it said that there was "a cost issue of referring cases where there is no real possibility of the conviction being overturned", which might have implied a financial cost. This has been clarified.

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