It is a stroke of good fortune for me that within a few months of my starting as Chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission there should be two separate and independent accounts scrutinizing how the organisation does its job.
One is the outcome of the Government’s Tailored Review of the CCRC which has looked in detail at the form and function of the Commission and which was published today (7 February 2019).
The other is the result of the most in-depth and significant independent academic study of CCRC’s culture, working practices and decision-making by Professor Carolyn Hoyle and captured in Reasons to Doubt: Wrongful Convictions and the Criminal Cases Review Commission which was published last week by Oxford University Press (details here).
While neither paints the Commission as a perfect institution, both provide strong and evidence-based reasons to believe that the CCRC is 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.
They may have been quite different in their approach and focus, but both were undoubtedly heavyweight projects whose purpose was to subject the CCRC to serious independent scrutiny.
Tailored Reviews are ordered by the Cabinet Office and tend to pull no punches. The review of the CCRC involved a team from the Ministry of Justice spending some months interviewing Commission staff and Commissioners and considering a range of views from applicants, legal representatives, campaigners and serving prisoners including submissions from more than 20 individuals and organisations who responded to a public call for evidence.
Professor Hoyle and her team from Oxford University spent many months at the Commission over four year period. They enjoyed privileged access to CCRC case files and interviewed and questioned our staff and Commissioners to gather quantitative and qualitative evidence for their rigorous study.
The fact that these were both independent evidence-based pieces of work is crucial and very welcome. Criticism of the Commission often comes from people – applicants, their representatives and supporters – who say that in this or that particular case the CCRC has been sloppy, unprofessional or careless, and that as a result we got the decision wrong. Some have argued that the Commission is not “fit for purpose”.
Professor Hoyle’s work in particular demonstrates that the CCRC simply cannot accurately be characterised in that way. Rather, we are shown to be careful, thorough and particularly concerned about getting the right answer in each case. At the launch event for her book in Oxford on 31 January she explicitly said: “The Commission is fit for purpose – to say otherwise is just wrong.”
The Government’s Tailored Review findings recognise our “continued excellent work” and that we are “effective and efficient”. It also clearly says there is “room to do more” and makes recommendations for us to consider.
It almost goes without saying, but for the record, neither Professor Hoyle’s book nor the Tailored Review found anything whatsoever to support the more outlandish accusations of corruption and bias that are occasionally levelled at the Commission; on the contrary, both found us to be an organisation of high standards and integrity.
Both the Tailored Review and Professor Hoyle’s book comment on the recent decline in the Commission’s referral rate. Other commentators have done the same. As we have said before, the Commission is aware and at least as concerned as anyone about the number of cases we refer for appeal. Our staff and Commissioners are always looking skilfully and diligently at all our applications for cases that we can properly refer.
However, it seems to me, as someone only relatively recently arrived at the Commission, that the number of cases we refer for appeal, while clearly very important, should not be the be-all-and-end-all of the Commission. 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.
The findings of the Tailored Review and the results of Professor Hoyle’s research have only recently been published. Both provide the Commission with some measure or reassurance, but also give us plenty of food for thought in terms of how we can and should improve.
Some of the Tailored Review recommendations clearly resonate with comments in Professor Hoyle’s book, particularly relating to consistency in our approach, how we explain casework decisions and how we communicate with our applicants. We have already started to make improvements in some of those areas but we will certainly now give serious consideration to all of the aspects touched upon by these two very welcome publications.