The release of the Birmingham Six at the Old Bailey in 1991. The idea of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was established by the Runciman Commission, set up following numerous high profile cases.
The body responsible for investigating miscarriages of justice is to receive a 10% increase in funding after a surge in applications from prisoners claiming they have been wrongfully convicted.
Last year the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) received 1,625 applications from people asking it to investigate their cases – a 64% increase on previous years.
The CCRC believes the dramatic rise in applications is the result of a change in the way that prisoners can apply to the commission.
Richard Foster, chairman of the commission, said: “This is not about some sudden upsurge in miscarriages of justice. It is about the commission making itself much more accessible to those who may most need its help and allowing people to make applications in ways which best suit them personally.”
The new application form – which has been advertised in all prisons — includes pictures and simpler language so that prisoners with even the most basic reading and writing skills can complete it.
Studies have found that more than 50% of prisoners have literacy levels below that expected of 11 year olds.
The Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) promise to give the CCRC nearly half a million pounds extra in funding is particularly noteworthy given the background of swingeing cuts to criminal legal aid.
A MoJ spokeswoman said: “The Criminal Cases Review Commission is an integral part of our justice system.
Over the past year they received a 64% increase in applications so we have granted them a small increase in their budget to deal with the workload and they have allocated more resources to processing applications to reduce delays.”
The funding of the CCRC has long been a contentious issue. The body had suffered a funding cut of 30% in real terms over the last seven years, resulting in redundancies at the commission’s Birmingham headquarters.
This lead critics of the organisation to claim that it lacked the resources to tackle the volume of cases it had to deal with every year.
The idea of the CCRC was established by the Runciman Commission which was set up following numerous high profile miscarriages of justice such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six.
“I hoped that if a new independent authority was set up on our recommendation that the government wouldn’t just tick the box and then start cutting back on the funding.”
Professor Michael Zander, who was also part of the Runciman Commission, praised the organisation for making itself more accessible: “On the whole I think they’ve being doing quite well, given their resources. The admirable attempt to make their message better known to prisoners has resulted in them being deluged by even more applications.”
“The increased funding is definitely a vote of confidence [in the CCRC] because everything has been going downhill and for anything to get more resources at the moment is remarkable.
“So that’s a triumph, or it may be a recognition that they’ve been shortchanged over quite a long time and it’s now got to a point where even this government has to do something about it, which I applaud. They need all the help they can get in terms of resources.”
The haemorrhaging of staff has now been halted and the commission is currently recruiting case review managers, commissioners and investigations specialists.
“We will be spending this money on front-line staff. We aim not just to cope with this huge increase in applications but also to maintain or improve waiting and turnaround times for cases,” said Foster.
“We all know the pressure on public finances. Ministers would not have increased our funding if they did not recognise both the work the commission has done to make itself as efficient and effective as it can and the importance of identifying, and remedying, miscarriages of justice whenever and wherever they occur.”
For those working with prisoners who are maintaining their innocence – sometimes for decades – in prison, the increased funding is welcome, but concerns over the CCRC’s approach remain.
Maslen Merchant, a lawyer who specialises in miscarriage of justice cases, thinks that the CCRC should see this as an opportunity to refocus its approach.
“I think the CCRC sometimes forgets who they’re dealing with and also the effect that delays can have. It once took a year for the CCRC to publish a decision it had made on a case. The prisoner – was had served 16 years already — was on suicide watch while he awaited his decision.
“They need to meet the prisoners and the families so that they understand what’s at stake. Otherwise it’s just another file – just another name,” said Merchant.
Solicitor Glyn Maddocks, who worked for more than 12 years to get the conviction of Paul Blackburn quashed, agrees: “If the CCRC uses the money to properly and effectively investigate cases rather than doing desktop reviews as they have being doing in recent years, then I would applaud it,” he said.
But a better funded CCRC does not really address the real problem facing the wrongly convicted – namely a lack of legal representation, according to Maddocks.
A shortage of solicitors to take on these difficult and complex cases has turned into a crisis, with most applicants to the CCRC now having no legal representation.
With the MoJ aiming to cut £220m out of criminal legal aid the situation is unlikely to get any better.
Maddocks and other criminal law experts have now created the Centre for Criminal Appeals to try to address the shortfall in legal representation for those who claim to be victims of a miscarriage of justice.
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