The work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Criminal Cases Review Commission


  1.  The Criminal Cases Review Commission was the first organisation in the world created to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice and, where appropriate, to refer cases back to the appeal courts. It was established on 1 January 1997 by the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. The Act sets out that the Commission can refer a criminal conviction, verdict, finding or sentence to the relevant appeal court when it considers there is a real possibility that it will not be upheld.

  2.  There are 11 Commissioners appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. They are supported by 86 staff (80 full time equivalent) based in offices in Birmingham.

  3.  The Commission is operating this year with a total budget of about £7.3 million funded through grant in aid from the Ministry of Justice.


  4.  The Commission has made sustained and significant improvements in its performance over the last two-and-a-half years. Waiting times experienced by applicants are our main performance indicator. Those waiting times have reduced dramatically since we reorganised our casework processes in late 2006. In 2005, an applicant in custody with a complex case would have waited 20 months for review to start. Today, the time to allocation is less than five months. Likewise, the waiting time to allocation for applicants at liberty is just over 16 months, down from 32 months in 2005. In March 2006 there were some 225 cases awaiting allocation for review. As of March 2008 there are just 78.

  5.  These improvements followed a review of the Commission's processes and structures in September 2005. Implementing recommendations from that review strengthened management by introducing Group Leaders as an intervening tier between Commission management and front line staff. Group Leaders manage casework groups and report to the Director of Casework, thereby greatly improving performance monitoring. This internal reorganisation of our processes has delivered results even faster than anticipated with these dramatic falls in waiting times and the number of cases waiting.


  6.  The Commission has, like most government organisations, experienced financial challenges as a result of budget reductions in recent years—our budget will continue to shrink until at least 2010-11. For the Spending Review 2007 period our budget reduces by £100k in money terms each year. These reductions may seem modest, but applying inflation to the 2005-06 starting point shows that a constant level of funding would have required a budget of about £8.3 million in 2010-11. So, the sustained improvement in performance has been delivered against the backdrop of a significant reduction in resources.

  7.  To live within means we have had to implement efficiencies and cost savings to bridge the funding gap which would otherwise amount to nearly £1.8 million by 2010-11. Staff costs account for almost 70% of our budget. Much of the remainder is made up of fixed costs such as rent for our offices. This means that significant savings must come from reducing staff costs. A recruitment freeze has been in place for more than two years and further reductions are planned. The Commission will have lost nearly 30% of case working staff over a period of six years by the time we reach the end of the Spending Review period. Obviously, continuing to sustain or improve performance against a backdrop of further resource reductions will be a considerable management challenge.


  8.  The Commission has very broad powers under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to secure material from public bodies for the purposes of review. There is, however, no corresponding power in respect of private bodies or persons. While many organisations and individuals do co-operate with the Commission, the absence of such a power can inhibit our work. The Commission contributed to the work of a multi-agency working group led by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform and looking into the issue of third party disclosure. The group produced a report of its findings which is being considered by the Government.


  9.  The Commission can be directed by the Court of Appeal to investigate and report on matters referred to it by the Court under section 23A of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 and section 15 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. We continue to receive a steady flow of these cases, carrying out 11 such investigations last year. Between the end of March 2008 and the end of February 2009, we have been asked by the Court to investigate in five new cases and to undertake further work in two linked cases from the previous year. We appreciate fully the importance of this work to the criminal justice system. As such directions relate to live proceedings they necessarily take priority over our cases waiting to be allocated and can require a significant amount of investigation time. A key theme from this work continues to be enquires relating to jury contamination or bias.


  10.  Our key role is to review alleged or suspected miscarriages of justice with a view to possible referral to an appeal court if it is the Commission's view that there is a "real possibility" (the statutory test) that a conviction, verdict, finding or sentence would not now be upheld. In the words of Lord Bingham CJ: "The exercise of the power to refer accordingly ... is entrusted to the Commission|and to no one else ... the threshold ... is imprecise but plainly denotes a contingency which, in the Commission's judgement, is more than an outside chance or a bare possibility, but which may be less than a probability or a likelihood or a racing certainty."

  11.  The Commission has accordingly had to tread a careful line between not, automatically, referring all but the most threadbare cases (so as not to burden the courts with a mass of hopeless appeals) and not being so cautious as to refer only those cases where it judges the applicants prospect of success on appeal is more or less assured.

  12.  In any one year the Commission expects to receive between 800 and 1,000 cases. The number of referrals as a percentage of cases closed fell between 04/05 and 07/08. In 04/05 we referred just over 5% of cases closed, in 2005-06 we referred 4.5% in 2006-07 it was 4%. However, these percentages have to be viewed against changes in the total volume of cases received by the Commission which rose sharply between 2003-04 and 2006-07 and now appears to be reverting to the average of around 900 applications a year.

  13.  The absolute number of cases referred over the last few years has remained fairly constant at between 36 in 2003-04, 47 in 2005-06 and 27 in 2007-08. In the current performance year we have so far referred 35 out of the 862 cases closed. That suggests the rate of referrals as a percentage of cases closed for 2008/9 will be around 4.1%—slightly above the Commission's long term average of 3.8%. However, given the relatively small absolute numbers the Commission handles, it is dangerous to attach too much significance to any one year's figures.


  14.  Cases from Northern Ireland remain an important part of the Commission's work. Between the start of the Commission's working life in 1997 and the end of February 2009, we have received 180 Northern Irish cases and closed 143 of them. As at the end of February this year, 28 of those cases had been referred. 24 cases had been heard by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. 22 of those resulted in either the convictions being quashed or the sentences reduced. Convictions were upheld in the remaining two cases.

  15.  In recent years the Commission has been called upon to investigate a growing number of convictions dating from the period between 1968 and 1998 and associated with "The Troubles". The convictions which have been brought to the Commission's attention have related to a wide range of matters and have, for example, raised issues concerning the interrogation of suspects, the handling of informants or the alleged non-disclosure of relevant material. The Commission's inquiries into those convictions have sometimes overlapped with criminal, disciplinary or other investigations being conducted by other bodies and the demands which "historic" cases of this type make on the Commission's resources, financial and human, are considerable.


  16.  On 9 May 2007, as part of much wider machinery of Government changes, sponsorship of the Commission transferred from the Home Office (specifically from the cross-departmental Office for Criminal Justice Reform) to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and now lies with the Delivery Directorate, part of the Access to Justice Group within MoJ.


  17.  The Commission is currently one of only three such bodies investigating and referring miscarriages of justice when the usual appeal process has been exhausted—the others being in Scotland and Norway. There is growing international interest in emulating this model. The Commission has continued to share the benefit of its experience and expertise with a range of individuals and organisations from around the world. This year Commission staff have already met and made presentations on our work to delegations from the Iranian judiciary and from Thailand's Ministry of Justice. In the last 18 months we have also taken part in the Inquiry into Paediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario, Canada, hosted visits to the Commission of interested parties from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Poland and the USA.


  18.  The Commission's many and varied stakeholders include the judiciary, the legal profession, the police and other criminal justice agencies and various miscarriage of justice campaign groups as well as any convicted person who believes their criminal conviction unsafe or their sentence wrong. We continue to benefit from the contributions and scrutiny of many of those stakeholders.

  19.  In the last year the Commission has sent guest lecturers to university law schools at Leeds, Birmingham, Aston, Kent, Northampton, Middlesex, Nottingham and Coventry. Commissioners regularly speak alongside other experts at events such as the forthcoming 13th annual Criminal Appeals Conference, the recent conference on The Challenge of Historic Allegations of Past Sexual Abuse and other events including the Criminal Bar Associates Conference, the Inner Temple Conference and the Student Law Conference. One Commissioner has a seat on the recently formed Forensic Science Advisory Council.

  20.  An ongoing prison visits programme has allowed us in the last 12 months to reach inmates at various establishments including HMP Dovegate, HMP Downview for women and young female offenders, HMP Grendon and HMP Feltham Young Offenders Institution. A highly successful 10th Anniversary Conference was held by the Commission in May 2007 and a further stakeholders' conference is planned for later in 2009. Several Commissioners and Commission staff will be attending the Scottish CCRC's 10th anniversary conference in April and the annual tripartite meeting between us and our Scottish and Norwegian counterparts.


  21.  The coming months will see some significant changes at the Commission. Governance of the organisation will be strengthened by the recruitment this year of a chief executive. The year 2009/10 will also see the appointment of the Commission's first non-executive directors; two are being sought.

  22.  The Commission will take on the responsibility for reviewing alleged miscarriages of justice arising from the Court Martial and the Service Civilian Court. The change, expected to take effect in October 2009, is part of widespread changes to military discipline introduced by the Armed Forces Act 2006.

  23.  The Commission is currently exploring with the experts at the Ministry of Justice the viability of a research project using the 11,000 or so cases the Commission has handled since its creation to see what useful information might be extracted about miscarriages of justice.

March 2009

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Prepared 16 June 2009