CCRC complains to IPSO about Times article on the independence of the Commission

We were very disappointed about the recent article in The Times headlined “Watchdog’s work was not independent, court rules” (page 56 of The Times 23rd July*). We wrote to The Times that day, and again two days later, to try to point out some issues with the article and headline and to offer our own point of view in relation to the subject matter which was principally the comment on the independence of the CCRC in the judgment from the judicial review case of Warner R v Secretary of State for Justice [2020] EWHC 1894 (Admin).

Neither letter was published and so we have reproduced them below.

We submitted the first letter on the day of publication and tweeted as follows in response to a tweet which repeated the headline.

However, The Times told us: “We couldn’t publish the letter as it stands as it is says the article is wrong. Therefore, as you believe corrections and/or clarifications are needed, the correct route would be to send the letter by email to feedback@thetimes.co.uk or by post to Feedback, The Times, 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1”.

We submitted a second, toned-down letter on 25th July and The Times said: “it still asserts that the article was incorrect and so cannot be published.”

On that advice we wrote to Feedback at The Times to raise four specific issues relating to the article and headline. On 29th July, The Times Feedback kindly published a short correction relating to one of those issues; an incorrect assertion that the CCRC refers less that one per cent of cases when, in fact, our referral rate averages 2.85%.

However, we still felt it was important that we did what we could to correct the remaining significant issues with the article and headline.  We feel strongly that the article has clearly created an incorrect impression in relation to the crucial matter of the independence of the CCRC and the discussion of that independence in the judgment in Warner R v SSJ [2020] EWHC 1894 (Admin) – a recent judicial review concerned specifically with the question of CCRC independence and which clearly concluded that the CCRC is indeed independent. To that end, and with some reluctance, we are now in the process of approaching IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation to ask them to consider this matter.

* In the Times Online version of the story, the headline was “CCRC’s work was not independent, court rules”.

Letter One – submitted Thursday  23rd July 2020 (the day of publication).

Sir,

The article about the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) on page 56 of yesterday’s Times was wrong in a number of ways and in our view was misconceived.

The headline “Watchdog’s work was not independent, court rules” does not at all reflect what was actually ruled in the Judicial Review cited. In that case it was claimed that interference from the Ministry of Justice compromised our independence (Warner R v SSJ [2020] EWHC 1894 (Admin)). In fact, the Court dismissed those claims saying, emphatically, that the CCRC is not only operationally independent, but is also “constitutionally” independent.

Among other errors was the claim that the CCRC has referred less than one per cent of cases. That too is way off the mark. We have so far referred 734 cases for appeal; that is 2.85% of the cases we have completed and one case every eight working days for the last 23 years.

On these and other shaky premises, the piece tried to re-assert the self-same allegations about our independence – roundly dismissed in the judgment from which the article quoted so selectively – and re-make the spurious connection at the heart of the case between the independence of our casework and the structure of our board and terms and conditions in our contracts of employment.

On that point, I would simply say that the independence of our casework decisions is a function of the attitude and culture of the organisation as a whole, and the mind-set of the staff and Commissioners who conduct investigations and make decisions. Both are healthily, even belligerently independent. No minister, department or civil servant has ever dared to try to influence our casework decisions. If that ever happened, we would be the first to complain.

 Helen Pitcher OBE.

Chairman, Criminal Cases Review Commission.

 

Letter 2 – submitted Saturday, 25 Jul 2020

Sir,

I hope that the headline – Watchdog’s work was not independent, court rules  –  on your article about the Criminal Cases Review Commission on page 56 of Thursday’s Times does not  persuade too many readers that that is what the Admin Court concluded in its recent judgment in Warner R v SSJ [2020] EWHC 1894 (Admin)). In fact, the Court emphatically dismissed the claims that the CCRC’s independence from Government had been compromised and went so far as to say that the CCRC is not only operationally independent, but is also “constitutionally” independent.

 That is right, we are both those things. However, the really crucial independence of the CCRC comes from the attitude and culture of the organisation as a whole, and the mind-set of the staff and Commissioners who conduct investigations and make decisions. Both are healthily, even belligerently independent. No minister, department or civil servant has ever dared to try to influence our casework decisions. If that ever happened, we would be the first to complain. 

Helen Pitcher OBE.

 

This statement was issued by Criminal Cases Review Commission Head of Communication Justin Hawkins. He can be contacted on 07947 355231 or at press@ccrc.x.gsi.gov.uk