Justice body needs 'bolder approach' say MPs

Scales of Justice statue Image copyright Science Photo Library

A public body that reviews miscarriages of justice should be "bolder" and refer more cases to the Court of Appeal, a group of MPs has said.

The Commons Justice Committee called for a less "timid" approach from the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

It also said the CCRC was "struggling to cope" with an increased workload when its funding had been cut by 30%.

CCRC chair Richard Foster said it judged cases by "the test that Parliament has specified for us."

Comparisons had been made to the Scottish CCRC whose overall referral figure of 7% is double that of the CCRC which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But Mr Foster pointed out a large proportion of referrals concern sentences, and that the figures for referral of convictions were "broadly the same".

Justice minister Mike Penning said the MPs raised "important issues".

The CCRC refers cases to the Court of Appeal if it decides there is a "real possibility" that the conviction or sentence could be changed.

But the Justice Committee said that the commission should "never fear disagreeing with, or being rebuked by, the Court of Appeal".

The report said the committee would be satisfied if a bolder approach led to five failed appeals - if it also meant that one miscarriage of justice was corrected.

It said juries sometimes made mistakes and the Court of Appeal's grounds for allowing appeals should be reviewed to encourage it to quash convictions where it had serious doubts about the verdict, even when there was no fresh evidence.

According to latest figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), 814 cases were under review at the end of February.

These included that of Ched Evans, the ex-Sheffield United striker who was found guilty in April 2012 of raping a 19-year-old woman.

He asked the Commission to review his case in the hope it would lead to a new appeal.

'Much needed power'

The Committee also said that the CCRC had been hampered by a lack of resources at a time when it was facing a "sharp increase" in its workload.

It recommended that the CCRC be given an extra £1m of annual funding to enable it to tackle delays in assessing cases.

The MPs also claimed that previous governments had failed to grant the CCRC the "obvious and much needed power" to require private as well as public bodies to disclose documents to it.

Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith said the committee could see no good reason why it had not been introduced, adding: "No new Criminal Justice Bill should be introduced in the next Parliament without it."

Responding to the report, Mr Penning said: "We recognise the challenging financial climate across government and will continue to support the commission in its efforts to improve performance and efficiency in dealing with cases.

"The committee's report raises important issues which we believe would best be considered by ministers in the next parliament."

The BBC's legal affairs correspondent Clive Colman said that the CCRC referred between 3-4% of its caseload to the court of appeal with a 70% success rate and was meeting its performance targets but that the Scottish CCRC had a referral rate twice as high.

The right test?

He added: "There's a real fear that there are miscarriages of justice that are not being corrected."

The committee was saying that the CCRC "should err on the side of referring cases. It should never fear disagreeing with or being rebuked by the court of appeal and it should not worry about its performance target. Basically it should just man up and do its job," he went on.

Mr Foster of the CCRC said: "We are required by law to operate a statutory test. It's the test that parliament has specified for us... the main finding was to raise a concern about whether or not the current test that we are required to apply is the right test.

"We actually refer one case per fortnight... The overwhelming majority of these cases are convictions of the most serious sort; that is to say rape, murder, terrorism offences and so on.

"We refer 3.5% of cases. In Scotland they refer 7%. However, nearly 50% are sentencing referrals so if you compare their conviction referrals then the figures are broadly the same."

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