The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is the public body with statutory responsibility for investigating alleged miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was established by Section 8 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 and started work investigating possible miscarriages of justice on 31 March 1997. The CCRC has the power to send, or refer, a case back to an appeal court if it considers that there is a real possibility the court will quash the conviction or reduce the sentence in that case.
Before the creation of the CCRC the only resort for a case which had already been to the Court of Appeal (or Northern Ireland Court of Appeal) was a direct appeal to the Home Secretary, or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Only the Home Secretary/Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the power to order the court to hear a case again. This power was limited to cases tried on indictment. Only four to five cases were referred each year out of around 700 applications. The power was also reactive in that the Home Secretary/ Northern Ireland Secretary only considered the issues raised by the applicant or his/her representatives, and could not go out and investigate or seek new grounds for appeal. Of course it was of note – and a ground for frequent criticism – that the same person who had responsibility for the police held the keys to the gateway back to the Court of Appeal and could thus control whether or not a conviction was overturned.
In the 1970s there was a series of high profile cases where the convictions were later recognised as miscarriages of justice: The Guildford Four (1974); The Birmingham Six (1975); The Maguire Seven (1976) and Judith Ward (1974). These cases featured a mixture of false confessions, police misconduct, non-disclosure and issues about the reliability of expert forensic testimony. An additional factor, which doubtless impacted on the decision-making during both the investigation and prosecution of these cases, was their high public profile and the pressure to obtain convictions and restore public confidence.
The weaknesses in the criminal justice system exposed by these cases led to the establishment of a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. Its remit included considering whether changes were needed in the arrangements for considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when appeal rights have been exhausted. Evidence was gathered over a two year period. The Report of the Royal Commission was published July 1993. The Royal Commission (adopting the view expressed by Sir John May in his Inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich bombings) took the view that the arrangements for referral of cases back to the courts were incompatible with the constitutional separation of powers as between the courts and the executive. The recommendations of the Royal Commission led to the Criminal Appeal Act of 1995 which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission.