In the Media

Our criminal review body has led to dozens of?convictions quashed | Laurie Elks

PUBLISHED April 19, 2012

Your article chronicles a campaign of criticism being mounted against the Criminal Cases Review Commission (Criminal review body is 'failing the innocent', 28 March). You report that, according to the group Innocence Network UK, "innocent people wrongly convicted of serious crimes are being routinely failed" by the commission.

Some lawyers, you report, say the CCRC is "too hesitant in challenging the position of the court of appeal", and "leaving hundreds of people to languish in prison". According to INUK's founder, Michael Naughton, the CCRC is neglecting to focus on whether applicants are innocent or guilty, as intended when the commission was conceived in the wake of the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six.

As one of the first commissioners of the CCRC, I would advise campaigners such as Naughton to be careful what they wish for. The commission was set up because the Home Office, previously responsible for reviewing alleged wrongful convictions, had so abjectly failed the victims of miscarriage. The CCRC led to a quadrupling of cases referred to the court of appeal; the more rigorous investigation of cases; and the righting of some terrible long-standing miscarriages of justice. While belated justice came too late for Derek Bentley, who was cleared after referral by the commission, dozens of other victims of unfair trials and coerced confessions have had their convictions quashed due to the commission's diligence.

Naughton argues that the commission routinely looks for nitpicking legal grounds to refer cases, neglecting questions of guilt or innocence. This would be a serious criticism if it were true, but it is not. The best evidence that a conviction is unsafe is fresh evidence throwing doubt on the convicted person's factual guilt. Evidence of innocence is rarely black and white but it is surely relevant to note the many convictions quashed after revelations of distorted forensic evidence (Sally Clark and Barry George being two of the best-known cases); grossly unreliable witnesses (including some harrowing cases of wrongful convictions for sexual offences); and serious prosecution non-disclosure. Naughton ignores such cases.

You report other pending INUK applicants to the commission in your accompanying article (Six of the cases where campaigners are seeking fresh look at the evidence, 28 March). Such "plausible claims" have to be evaluated by the CCRC considering the new evidence in the context of the case heard at trial. It is not the commission's job to refer all the applicants whom campaigners deem innocent.

I would not suggest the commission is perfect, and it is heartening that its deputy chairman, Alastair McGregor, candidly admitted in your article that the current system did sometimes fail miscarriage of justice victims and that it was important to press for improvements. CCRC referrals have sometimes met a rebarbative response from the court of appeal ? which seems to have forgotten the lessons of cases such as the Birmingham Six. The commission has also suffered severe budget cuts from the Department of Justice. And, yes, the commission sometimes misses investigative issues, and is rightly open to criticism when it does so.

But it is wholly to the commission's credit that it remains willing to press for achievable changes to its legal framework and to engage with its critics. Campaigners like Naughton should appreciate that opportunity.