The Criminal Cases Review Commission: Reporting Success?

Publication Date01 March 2001
Date01 March 2001
AuthorDavid Schiff,Richard Nobles
The Criminal Cases Review Commission: Reporting
Richard Nobles and David Schiff*
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) issued its third Annual Report
on 15 June 2000.1In it, and in other communications about its work,2the
Commission makes claims that it is successful and perceived as successful, and
that the doubts that had been expressed about its likely success prior to its
establishment have been dispelled.3After having operated for three years this
seems to be an appropriate time to assess the claimed success of this non-
departmental public body in carrying out its responsibilities as a post-appeal
institution designed to remedy miscarriages of justice.4However any assessment
concerning success requires a measure by which that assessment can be made, and
such a measure is principally dependent on two factors. First, it involves the need
to have a clear idea of what constitutes a miscarriage of justice. And secondly, to
assess the role of the CCRC it is necessary to put it into its institutional and non-
institutional context. This involves understanding the relationship between this
body and other institutions and pressure groups5that are aimed at remedying
miscarriages of justice. What are those relationships and what ought they to be? In
brief, the question ‘what should this institution be seeking to achieve?’ is a
ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001 (MLR 64:2, March). Published by Blackwell Publishers,
108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
* Law Department, London School of Economics. We would like to thank Nicola Lacey for commenting
on a draft of this article.
1 The first Annual Report, 1997–98 (AR1) covered the period from the Commission’s establishment on
1 January 1997 to 31 March 1998. The second Annual Report, 1998–99 (AR2) covered the period
from 1 April 1998 to 31 March 1999 and the third Annual Report, 1999–2000 (AR3) the period from
1 April 1999 to 31 March 2000.
2 A good example is the presentation of oral evidence by the Commission’s Chairman, Sir Frederick
Crawford and its Chief Executive, Mrs Glenys Stacey to the House of Commons Select Committee on
Home Affairs on 11 April 2000 (The Work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, HC 429
3 Sir Frederick Crawford has made this claim in his covering memos to the Home Secretary in each of
the Annual Reports with increasing confidence. ‘Before the Commission was established, gloomy
forebodings were widely expressed about its prospective independence and ability to investigate
suspected miscarriages of justice thoroughly. Those doubts have been allayed during the
Commission’s start-up year.’ (AR1, 5) ‘I believe that the Commission can be justly proud of what
it has achieved, in a difficult and sensitive role, in the short space of two years since its inception.’
(AR2, 5) ‘Familiarity with its work has largely allayed early stakeholder concerns regarding its
independence and its ability to investigate suspected miscarriages of justice thoroughly.’ (AR3, 5).
4 It has a number of other related responsibilities, as set out in the Criminal Appeal Act 1995.
5 These include organisations such as Justice, which has for nearly forty years assisted those claiming to
have been victims of miscarriages of justice, and Liberty. Indeed, prior to the establishment of the
Commission, Justice considered itself to be ‘the main independent body which receives and reviews
allegations of miscarriages of justice . .. mainly with those in which appeal rights have been
exhausted, or where detailed investigations are necessary.’ (Justice, Remedying Miscarriages of
Justice (London, 1994) 21). Pressure groups also include elements of the media, such as the television
programmes ‘Rough Justice’ and ‘Trial and Error’, as well as individual investigative journalists who
have played a significant role in bringing individual miscarriages of justice to the attention of the
public. They also include ad hoc committees set up by family and friends of those alleging
necessary and, in our view, more informative preliminary question to that of ‘how
well is it doing?’6Whilst there is a definite consensus that miscarriages of justice
should be remedied, this consensus does not translate into agreement as to what
constitutes miscarriage. Neither does it determine what the respective
responsibilities are of the different institutions and pressure groups involved or
what level of public expenditure should be devoted to dealing with the problem. In
this article, we seek to examine the success of this body against the target of a
range of attitudes and ambitions that led to its creation, as well as the ambitions
that it claims for itself.7The main sources of information on which we rely are the
Commission’s Annual Reports.8
The task facing the Commission
Setting up the Commission was a leading recommendation of the Royal
Commission on Criminal Justice,9a body whose own creation was announced
on the day that the Birmingham Six appeal was upheld and their convictions
quashed in 1991. That successful appeal followed the earlier successful appeal by
the Guildford Four in 1989, and was followed in turn by successful appeals in a
number of other high profile cases: Maguire Seven, Tottenham Three, Cardiff
Three, Stefan Kiszko, Judith Ward, Darvell brothers, Taylor sisters, and others.
While each of these successful appeals was the result of specific grounds of appeal,
and thus an acceptance by the Court of Appeal in each appeal that there had been
an individual miscarriage of justice, press reporting on these cases was quite
different. The media sought to link these successful appeals, and use them as
evidence of a systemic failure of the English criminal justice system which, in the
often repeated newspaper phrase of the time, was now itself ‘on trial’.10 While
there was never a consensus as to the nature of this systemic failure, the certainty
that the successful appeals were evidence of some general if submerged failures of
criminal justice, also led to the belief that there must be large numbers of
miscarriages of justice waiting to be identified. The sense that the high-profile
successful appeals represented a tip of some quite enormous iceberg was well
evident in newspaper articles at the time. With influential journalists making this
claim, it was not surprising that others repeated it.
[A] regrettable proportion of those in prison are innocent of the crimes for which they were
6 Of course these two questions are closely connected. However we feel that the useful assessment
offered by others, such as A. James, N. Taylor and C. Walker, ‘The Criminal Cases Review
Commission: Economy, Effectiveness and Justice’ (2000) Crim LR 140 is more characteristic of the
second question, whilst the analysis we offer here is more representative of the first.
7 These self-proclaimed ambitions are set out in summary at the beginning of the Annual Reports:
Independent, Thorough, Investigative, Impartial, Open, and Accountable.
8 A statutory duty requires these Annual Reports to be produced, Criminal Appeal Act 1995, Sched 1
para 8.
9Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, Report Cm 2263 (1993) ch 11 para 11.
10 See our analysis of the construction of a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system by the
media in the early 1990s, in R. Nobles and D. Schiff, Understanding Miscarriages of Justice: Law,
the Media, and the Inevitability of Crisis (Oxford: OUP, 2000) ch 4.
11 The well-known writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, whose books relating to a number of
miscarriages have been so significant. ‘If he were guilty, he could be free’ The Independent, 19 March
March 2001] Criminal Cases Review Commission
ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001 281

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