Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Edward Northcote

  1.  When I retired, I decided to do something about wrongful convictions. I appealed in Inside Time (the prison newspaper) and received about 200 letters. The cynical will ask, "What did you expect?" but the good people who run the New Bridge were very surprised. A great many complained about their sentences and many others had not appealed. Many did not persist, but a disturbing residuum seem clearly to be victims of miscarriage of justice.

  2.  I only deal with questions of fact. If a correspondent has a point of law I tell him to consult a lawyer. My point is that when the lawyers have exhausted their procedures, the case is fair game for anyone.

  3.  I hope to persuade the Committee that the CCRC should be seen in the context of correcting wrongful convictions overall and so:

    3.1  Four distinguished lay people (Privy Counsellors or equivalent) should be commissioned as judges (two as Lords Justice) and they should constitute the Court of Criminal Appeals when the only question to be determined is one of fact.

    3.2  The Chairman of the CCRC should be a very senior judge, holding the office for one year. He should have responsibility for identifying faults in the criminal justice system and trying to get them put right.

    3.3  The CCRC should be much more user friendly, particularly to the unassisted applicant. They should identify his plausible claims to be a victim of miscarriage and investigate them until either they fall down or the case should be referred. They should exercise initiative and develop a culture of wanting to make referrals. They should be willing to see at least the representatives of applicants, and they should be willing to visit the applicants themselves.

    3.4  The CCRC should take steps to see that effective help is available to all applicants. They should not advertise the services of solicitors unless they are confident that they are competent and they should actively help and engage with lay volunteers. The latter may well be able to do the job better than professionals as, being unpaid, they can afford to give a long as may be needed to the work. This would improve efficiency.

    3.5  The Crown Prosecution Service should be brought into the picture at an early stage. If the CCRC are to look to making referrals, someone should be defending the convictions.

    3.6  The Court of Criminal Appeal should be invited to up their game more than somewhat.


  4.  With hindsight, it seems that setting up the CCRC was not an appropriate response to the Birmingham Six case; they had had their case referred but the appeals were rejected. The Court was failing to do its job; the Home Secretary was not.

  5.  The first question for the Committee must be how many wrong convictions are there? I understand that criminals accept being convicted wrongly as an occupational hazard—if this is right, it may well be that as many as one conviction in 10 is wrong, but most of these will not cause great concern. Sir Robin Auld's recommendations about the jury recognise the seriousness of the problem. Wrongful conviction for murder, drug offences and paedophile offences, however are very serious.

    5.1  I seriously think there are at least 100 people in prison for murders with which they were not associated in any way, and in addition a great many ought rather to have been convicted of manslaughter. One of my correspondents was so amazingly convicted of a murder that I think he can only have been the victim of institutional racism. In two other cases, previous "one man crime waves" were fitted up by the police with cell confessions.

          I have been very shocked by a corroding effect which a long time in prison can (but does not always) have on a man who sincerely thinks he is the victim of a miscarriage. Inflicting psychological injury to a convicted person should be no more acceptable than maiming him.

    5.2  Wrongful drug convictions cause great concern because they take the flak away from the truly guilty and, no doubt, give great satisfaction to the "Mr Bigs" of this world.

    5.3  It is unusually hard on a man in his 40s who is convicted of a very old paedophile offence and goes to prison for the first time under Rule 43. What is more, the young person who has accused him wrongly (perhaps because he was motivated by the prospect of compensation) is not in an enviable position. Both these last two are worrying because public opinion can be so strongly affected by the perceived awful consequences of the offences that jurors may not be too nice about fairness. "Say `guilty' to be on the safe side." One of my correspondents thinks he was wrongly convicted for importing Ecstasy at least partly because his trial was held at the time of Leah Betts. Prejudice against paedophiles is not confined to the less advantaged. I asked a friend, the widow of a doctor, to visit a correspondent (of whose innocence I am convinced) but she would not as he is convicted of an offence against children.

  6.  Some convictions are truly amazing. In one case, a man was convicted of stealing a lot of money which had not been stolen at all. It had been applied quite correctly to the object the subscriber intended and the reason why the intended beneficiaries did not enjoy the fruit of it was that it was taken from them quite lawfully by Order of the Court. That case went through a trial, a Newton hearing and an appeal. Even the victim did not understand what had gone wrong until I explained it to him.

  7.  The wrongfully convicted have virtually no chance with the CCRC unless they have help. The CCRC admits no obligation to show any initiative and appears to have a culture of not referring doubtful convictions. They say that one of the reasons for this is their statutory obligation to have a proper chance of success. I think this obligation to second guess the Court limits their independence. And it is surprising. I understand that the Court never told the Home Secretary that he should not refer certain types of case.

    7.1  In one case, there had been a lot of PIIs. My correspondent had not realised that he could ask for investigations into whether all had been disclosed that should have been.

    7.2  Another had not realised that he could ask for the cell confession to be investigated.

    7.3  In another case. I could not persuade the CCRC even to write a letter enquiring if evidence might be available. My correspondent has since consulted a solicitor at much greater expense to the public purse.

    7.4  One's defence was so defective that I was convinced that his QC must actually have been corrupt, but I was totally unable to persuade them to make any enquiries at all. They said that they did not think his case matched the very tight standards of the Court for accepting inadequate representation as a ground. I cannot understand how there can be such rules—any defect of the defence may jeopardise the safety of the conviction. (that surely is the reason for having rules), even though most do not.

  8.  Blackstone wrote in his Commentaries (1765):

  "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"

  Then the suffering of the innocent was often hanging. If the "10" was meant to be taken literally, (and there must be some number) then abolition will have reduced it. I hope the Committee will please press on the lawyers that the public are not satisfied with the way the police fail to bring offenders to justice, and that justice demands that their attitude to wrongful convictions changes to match reforms needed to increase the conviction rate.

  9.  I hope that the Committee will agree that the CCRC should have a role in the criminal justice system similar to that which the National Audit Office has in the management of the money. The Court of Criminal Appeals should be quashing most wrongful convictions conveniently after they have occurred—it is not doing so because:

    9.1  The facts on which they rely are often wrong or misunderstood. A misinformed Court is wasting its time.

    9.2  The resource of the Prosecution is totally ignored.

    9.3  A man who says he has been convicted wrongly should have a fair chance to say so himself to someone who can do something about it. He should always have an oral hearing by the Single Judge. (I think guilty people would make fewer applications the Single Judge if they had to speak themselves.)

    9.4  The Single Judge should have power to order the CCRC to investigate any aspect of the original trial that he thinks may be suspect.

  10.  But the central problem seems to be the defensive attitude of the senior judges. While the Birmingham Six were in prison, even the great Lord Denning said that it was better not to make a fuss because it might damage confidence in the system.

March 2002

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 13 March 2003