The Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice today launches its report into the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), In the Interests of Justice. The Westminster Commission was set up in 2019 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice to respond to widespread concern about the low, and recently declining, number of cases referred to the Court of Appeal within a criminal justice system already under immense strain.
The Westminster Commission received evidence from practitioners, academics and those who have experienced the criminal justice system as lawyers, witnesses and defendants, including those who felt they had been denied justice.
The report concluded that the CCRC is a much-needed public body but it needs to change.
The ‘real possibility test’ must go
At present, the CCRC can refer cases for review only where it considers there is a ‘real possibility’ that the Court of Appeal will overturn the conviction or sentence. The report considers that the predictive nature of this test has encouraged the CCRC to be too deferential to the Court of Appeal. It considers that the test acts as a brake on the CCRC’s freedom of decision and recommends that there should be a more objective test: that the CCRC is to refer a case if it considers the conviction may be unsafe, the sentence may be manifestly excessive or wrong in law, or that it is in the interests of justice to make a referral. This would encourage a different and more independent mind set in the CCRC.
Investigation needs improvement
Although the CCRC has carried out some excellent investigative work, budget constraints, an increased caseload, as well as a target-driven culture valuing speed over thoroughness, mean that applicants may spend further unnecessary time in prison.
The report calls for increased resources for the CCRC and for publicly funded representation, and recommends changes to allow the body to get evidence from public bodies more quickly.
Structure needs strengthening
Government-imposed changes have diminished the role of the CCRC’s leadership and decision makers and undermined the spirit and purpose of its founding legislation. The report recommends the strengthening of key roles within theorganisation and calls for the reinstatement of safeguards which allow for confident, independent decision-makers and the CCRC to do the job that Parliament intended for it.
Lord Garnier QC, Co-Chair of the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice and former Solicitor General, commented:
“The Criminal Cases Review Commission is a vital part of our criminal justice system and has achieved a great deal that is admirable. As the last hope for the unjustly convicted, it must remain alert to the need to be properly equipped to deal with wrongful convictions.
We believe our recommendations would lead to an improvement in the CCRC’s investigatory work, prevent it from being too wary of the Court of Appeal, and allow it to maintain its independence.”
Baroness Stern CBE, Co-Chair of the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice, said:
“The weight of the evidence we have considered leads us to conclude that, although there is much to praise in the work of the CCRC, there is room for improvement. We hope our report will assist the Commission to fulfil its original statutory remit – that is certainly our intention.”
The report, In the Interests of Justice, is available in full here.