Criminal Cases Review Commission
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is the public body with statutory responsibility for investigating alleged miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was established by Section 8 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 and started work investigating possible miscarriages of justice on 31 March 1997. The CCRC has the power to send, or refer, a case back to an appeal court if it considers that there is a real possibility the court will quash the conviction or reduce the sentence in that case.
Between starting work in 1997 and the end of October 2013 the Commission referred 538 cases back to the appeal courts at an average of 33 referrals a year or almost one case every eight working days (see casework statistics below). Those referrals came from a total of 15,707 cases closed during that period. This means that the CCRC has referred for appeal 3.43%, or one in every 29, of the applications considered. Of the cases referred by the CCRC to the appeal courts, approximately 70% have succeeded at appeal.
The cases referred by the CCRC come generally from the most serious end of the criminal spectrum – just over 25% of referrals have been for murder convictions, almost 12% have been for rapes, and 8% have been for robberies. The rest relate to a mixture of other mostly serious and mostly indictable only offences.
The Criminal Appeal Act 1995 that created the CCRC requires it to consider applications in relation to convictions from both the Crown Court and the Magistrates Court. Ninety per cent of all applications received, and 95% of all CCRC referrals, have related to Crown Court cases for which the appellate court is the Court of Appeal. Magistrates Court cases are appealed in the Crown Court first.
The CCRC currently receives around 1,500 applications a year. Applications are made in writing by people with criminal convictions or by their representatives. It is not necessary to have a lawyer to apply to the CCRC, but around half of all applicants are assisted by a lawyer.
Applications can relate to conviction or sentence or both. Around 85% of CCRC referrals have related to convictions and 15% to sentences. A small handful of cases have been referred for both conviction and sentence.
The CCRC is essentially a post-appeal organisation and applicants to it usually need to have appealed, or at least sought leave to appeal, before the Commission can agree to review their case. In some cases, where there are exceptional circumstances, the CCRC can review a case in the absence of a prior attempt to appeal.
In order to be able to refer a case for appeal, the Commission will usually have to identify some new evidence or new legal argument that makes the case look significantly different. That evidence or argument will have to be new in the sense that it was not considered at the time of the trial, at the appeal, and has not been considered in an earlier application to the CCRC. Again, there is an "exceptional circumstances" caveat in the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 that allows the CCRC to refer cases where evidence or argument is not new, but instances of cases being referred under such circumstances are extremely rare.
In 2009 the CCRC’s jurisdiction was extended to cover convictions and or sentences arising from the Court Martial or Service Civilian Court after 31 October 2009.
The CCRC is an independent non-departmental public body (NDPB) funded by way of a cash grant from the Ministry of Justice. It is based in Birmingham and has around 90 staff plus Commissioners. The CCRC's budget for 2013/14 is £5.2million.
CCRC Casework Statistics
at 31 October 2014 the Commission had:
- referred 565 cases for appeal
- received 18,513 applications
- 835 cases under review
- completed 16,990 cases (including ineligible cases)
- 543 cases heard by the Court of Appeal (374 quashed, 153 upheld)
Background to the CCRC
Before the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission the only resort for a case which had already been to the Court of Appeal (or Northern Ireland Court of Appeal) was a direct appeal to the Home Secretary/Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Only the Home Secretary/Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the power to order the court to hear a case again. This power was limited to cases tried on indictment. Only four to five cases were referred each year out of around 700 applications. The power was also reactive in that the Home Secretary/ Northern Ireland Secretary only considered the issues raised by the applicant or his/her representatives, and could not go out and investigate or seek new grounds for appeal. Of course it was of note – and a ground for frequent criticism – that the same person who had responsibility for the police held the keys to the gateway back to the Court of Appeal and could thus control whether or not a conviction was overturned.
In the 1970s there was a series of convictions which were later found to be unsafe: Guildford Four (1974); Birmingham Six (1975); Maguire Seven (1976); Judith Ward (1974). These cases featured a mixture of false confessions, police misconduct, non-disclosure and issues about the reliability of expert forensic testimony. An additional factor, which doubtless impacted on the decision-making during both the investigation and prosecution of these cases, was their high public profile and the pressure to obtain convictions and restore public confidence.
The weaknesses in the criminal justice system exposed by these cases led to the establishment of a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. Its remit included considering whether changes were needed in the arrangements for considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when appeal rights have been exhausted. Evidence was gathered over a two year period. The Report of the Royal Commission was published July 1993. The Royal Commission (adopting the view expressed by Sir John May in his Inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich bombings) took the view that the arrangements for referral of cases back to the courts were incompatible with the constitutional separation of powers as between the courts and the executive. The recommendations of the Royal Commission led to the Criminal Appeal Act of 1995 which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The Commission has been criticized for the length of time it takes to examine cases, and the way it produces its statistics. Bob Woffinden wrote in The Guardian in 2010 that the Commission counts as a "quashed case" any case it refers on the basis of sentence alone, if the sentence is subsequently changed, and any case where alternative convictions are upheld. He also wrote that it counts its successes in terms of numbers of individuals, rather than cases (so that cases involving multiple convictions are counted more than once), and that some of its work involves overturning relatively minor convictions. According to Woffinden, between 2005 and 2010 the Commission referred only seven major cases to the Court of Appeal, including one (the case of Sean Hodgson) in which the prisoner's lawyers worked directly with the police and prosecution to secure an uncontested appeal.
- The CCRC appeared before the Justice Select Committee at the Houses of Parliament on 14 January 2014. Footage of the session can be seen here.
- In 2013 the Ministry of Justice conducted a Triennial Review of the CCRC. The completed review report was published on 6 June 2013 and can be seen at the foot of the webpage here.
- Guide to making applications to the CCRC from United Against Injustice
- The Criminal Cases Review Commission: Hope for the Innocent?
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