Justice Issues

Losing its appeal: is it time to say goodbye to the CCRC?

Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Birmingham Six and that iconic image outside the Old Bailey when they were free after 16 years, having had their convictions quashed for the murder of 21 people in two Birmingham pubs.

The case was one of a series of miscarriages of justice that sent shockwaves through the justice system, led to the 1993 Runciman commission and, 13 years ago, the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate such cases.

Critics of the CCRC — and there has been ferocious criticism of late — say not enough has changed. “I’m out of prison but not free,” says Susan May, of Royton, Manchester.

“I eat, sleep and breathe my case.” May has always protested that she was the victim of a miscarriage. Last year her friends held a meeting at the House of Commons, hosted by John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes & Harlington, to highlight a case over which there has been growing disquiet. Speakers included Bob Woffinden, the investigative journalist, and Michael Naughton, an academic. Both have questioned whether the CCRC remains fit for purpose.

It is six years since May left Askham Grange open prison after 12 years of a life sentence for the murder of her elderly aunt. She was convicted in 1993, lost her first appeal in 1997 (“the year the CCRC was formed”) and a second CCRC-backed appeal in 2001.

She believes that her fate — and peace of mind — rests in the hands of the Birmingham-based body. It deals with longstanding appeals such as her’s and 950 new applications every year from people who want it to look afresh at their cases.

“To be wrongly convicted is the worst thing ever,” May says. “But to fight a system that is surrounded by red tape and bureaucracy just makes the nightmare worse.”

Woffinden believes that it is time to “acknowledge that [the commission] is an experiment that has failed”. He calls its lack of action in May’s case “an irrational non-decision” and says that her conviction would have been quashed were it not for the CCRC. Controversial, impossible to prove, but the campaigner says that the commission can take credit for taking only seven “major cases” to appeal since 2005. He argues that a host of cases — including those of Jeremy Bamber, whom the CCRC decided not to refer back to the Court of Appeal again, Eddie Gilfoyle and May — are left to languish.

“ ‘Major’ seems to us to equate to Bob’s view as to how interesting he finds them,” the CCRC counters. Since 2005 there have been 202 referrals to the appeal courts, including 33 murders and 28 rapes.

“If you look over the entirety of the commission’s existence, the number of cases we’ve referred has remained pretty constant and between three and four times as high as it was under the Home Office,” says Richard Foster, former chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service and now chairman of the CCRC.

Many prominent defence lawyers disagree that the watchdog is redundant. The idea that we revert to the discredited Home Office C3 unit is “completely untenable”, says Henry Blaxland, QC. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight that it was an historic development and broadly welcomed as a world leader. It should be something that we’re proud of.” But Blaxland acknowledges that its work is “increasingly variable”. He says: “The commission has become overcautious. That’s understandable. It reflects the mood of the Court of Appeal.”

The CCRC “stepped into an enormous vacuum”, says Michael Mansfield, QC, whose name has been associated with the overturning of countless miscarriages from the Birmingham Six to Barry George. “The problems that it faces come from a couple of sources. The first is, I’m afraid, the Court of Appeal that over the years has turned the clock back. It is less willing to investigate miscarriages and from time to time has openly criticised the commission.”

The second problem is money. Its budget has been slashed from £6.9 million to £5.9 million since 2005, caseworker numbers have fallen from 48 to 32 and only 9 of the statutorily required 11 commissioners are in position. Surely something has to give?

David Jessel, who recently stepped down from the commission after ten years, says: “There’s a limit beyond which you can’t honestly claim to do justice to a thousand new applicants a year.” Jessel, a campaigning journalist through his work on programmes such as Rough Justice and Trial and Error, says that it might be “the time and the opportunity to rethink the CCRC’s remit” and “refocus on its founding ambitions”.

Mansfield fears that CCRC critics play into the hands of ministers ideologically opposed to the commission. “I’m always aware that there are political forces at work that would love the CCRC disbanded,” he says. “They think it’s a waste of time. Not only do these people not deserve the vote, they don’t deserve to have their cases reviewed.”

by Jon Robins

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