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CCRC Response to Report of Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice

5 March 2021

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (‘CCRC’) welcomes the publication today of the Westminster Commission’s report: “In the Interests of Justice – An inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission”. The CCRC has been pleased to co-operate with the Commission throughout its inquiry, including by way of oral evidence to the inquiry by the CCRC’s Chairman and Chief Executive on 15 July 2019, and through detailed written submissions. The CCRC recognises the importance of giving proper public scrutiny to the CCRC’s performance and to the way that it discharges its vital public function, and we are grateful that so many people took the time to contribute to the inquiry. More generally, the CCRC welcomes the fact that the Commission’s report will help to ensure that the important subject of miscarriages of justice will continue to receive the public attention which it deserves.

The Commission’s long and detailed report makes more than 30 recommendations, some directed at the CCRC and some directed at other organisations, which cover a wide range of issues. We are pleased that the Commission recognises some of the excellent work carried out by the CCRC, but we also take seriously those areas where improvements are said to be needed. The CCRC keeps under review how it works, looking for opportunities to develop and improve how we operate. The CCRC will give detailed consideration to the Commission’s recommendations, taking the opportunity to learn from the Commission’s inquiry and to implement any changes which we believe will improve the CCRC and its work. At this stage, the CCRC would like to comment upon the following key points which emerge from the Commission’s inquiry:

  1. The number of cases which the CCRC refers to the appeal courts. The Commission’s report begins by explaining that the context of the inquiry includes “the low, and in recent years declining, number of cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC” (page 11 of report). It is important to stress that the number of CCRC cases referred for appeal has not declined in the last two years, but in fact has risen significantly. In the current business year (April 2020 – March 2021) the CCRC has referred more cases to the appeal courts than ever before (69 cases to date). Whilst we must remain cautious not to read too much into annual referral statistics, we believe that the referral of 69 cases for appeal this year – particularly in view of the difficulties of working during the pandemic (as referred to in the Foreword to the Commission’s report) – is a significant achievement, which is a testament to the hard work and dedication of CCRC staff and Commissioners.
  1. The CCRC’s funding should be increased. The CCRC welcomes this recommendation by the Commission, just as it welcomed a similar recommendation by the Justice Select Committee in 2015. Not only would increased funding enable us to protect the quality and timeliness of our casework, it could also (as the CCRC’s Chief Executive made clear in her oral evidence to the Commission) enhance our stakeholder engagement programme, including our outreach work to young people in the criminal justice system. The CCRC has requested additional funding from the Ministry of Justice and has had a constructive dialogue with the Ministry on that subject. We await the Ministry’s decision on funding.
  1. The CCRC’s test for referring cases for appeal. The Commission recommends that the wording of the statutory test be amended. The CCRC made clear to the Justice Select Committee in 2015, and again in its evidence to the Westminster Commission, that it supports there being an independent review of the statutory test for a referral. Although amending the legislation would ultimately be a matter for Parliament, the CCRC continues to support the idea of an independent review by the Law Commission.
  1. Leadership and independence. The CCRC continues to keep independence at the centre of its work and the CCRC’s Chairman and Chief Executive play a crucial role in protecting our independence, both from Government and from the Courts. The CCRC’s Commissioners and staff also remain fiercely protective of the CCRC’s independence, and there is a strong culture of independence in the organisation. As the CCRC made clear in its evidence to the Westminster Commission, there has never been any interference from Government in CCRC casework, and the CCRC would not tolerate it if there were.
  1. Review of disclosure provisions in the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. The CCRC supports such a review, as we made clear in our oral evidence to the Commission. The CCRC considers that it would be useful if the legislation provided us with more discretion to publish our reasons for decision in particular cases, where this appears to be in the public interest.
  1. Sanctions for public bodies who fail to comply / delay in their compliance with CCRC statutory notices requiring material. The CCRC supports this recommendation and has done so publicly for a number of years. The CCRC uses its statutory power to obtain public body material on thousands of occasions each year, and compliance is generally very good. However, it would undoubtedly assist our work if sanctions could be applied to those public bodies who do not comply or who delay unreasonably in complying with CCRC statutory notices.
  1. The CCRC should improve its communications with applicants. As the Commission reported (page 56), since Professor Carolyn Hoyle’s research was published in 2019 the CCRC has – with input from its Stakeholder Forum – reviewed its policy on updates to applicants and representatives, with a renewed emphasis on providing substantive detail of activity in the case review wherever we properly can. However, we remain committed to improving further on this issue. Regarding the language used in CCRC decisions, we agree that it is essential that it is as comprehensible as possible, particularly in view of the fact that 90% of applicants to the CCRC are now unrepresented. The CCRC has already taken steps to simplify decision documents – in many cases now issuing straightforward and concise “Decision Notices” – however, we are committed to improving further, in consultation with key stakeholders.

This press release was issued by the Communications Team, Criminal Cases Review Commission. They can be contacted by phone on 07789 945304 or by email press@ccrc.gov.uk.

Notes for editors

  1. The Commission is an independent body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. It is responsible for independently reviewing suspected and alleged miscarriages of criminal justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is based in Birmingham and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.
  2. There are currently nine Commissioners who bring to the Commission considerable experience from a wide variety of backgrounds. Commissioners are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister in accordance with the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.
  3. The Commission usually receives around 1,400 applications for reviews (convictions and/or sentences) each year. Since starting work in 1997, the CCRC has referred around 3% of applications to the appeal courts.
  4. The Commission considers whether, as a result of new evidence or argument, there is a real possibility that the conviction would not be upheld were a reference to be made. New evidence or argument is argument or evidence which has not been raised during the trial or on appeal.  Applicants should usually have appealed first. A case can be referred in the absence of new evidence or argument or an earlier appeal only if there are “exceptional circumstances”.
  5. If a case is referred, it is then for the appeal court to decide whether the conviction is unsafe or the sentence unfair.
  6. More details about the role and work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission can be found at www.ccrc.gov.uk The Commission can be found on Twitter using @ccrcupdate