Cold comfort for victims of injustice

A new body set up to review controversial cases may do little to help the innocent in jail, says Paul Donovan

Over the years the men convicted of the murder of newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater have been supported by a strong campaign that helped to bring about the eventual referral to the Court of Appeal. Most innocent prisoners do not have such support, and it was in order to provide an easier route to freedom for the innocent still inside that the new Criminal Cases Review Commission was created. The CCRC will start operating later this year, but many lawyers and campaigners already fear that the body, promoted as a reform, will actually make matters worse.

At the moment, the C3 department of the Home Office investigates alleged miscarriages of justice and it is their recommendations that form the basis for the Home Secretary's decision whether to refer a case back to the Court of Appeal. C3 will be replaced by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The establishment of an independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice was first recommended by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice set up in 1993 after the release of the Birmingham Six. The suggestion was accepted by the Home Secretary and became law last year with the passing of the Criminal Appeal Act. However, the recent appointment of Sir Frederick Crawford - a plasma scientist - as chairman and the manner in which the post was advertised have raised eyebrows.

The process for creating the CCRC has been shrouded in secrecy and the advertisement for the part-time pounds 88,000-a-year position as chairman was not widely published. According to the Home Office, two-thirds of the Commission must have knowledge or experience of the criminal justice system and the other third must be legally qualified, which poses some interesting questions about the man appointed to be chair.

Among the credentials on Sir Frederick's CV are a spell as a scientist at the French Atomic Energy Commission (1973- 1977) and service as a member of numerous committees on the Space Shuttle at Nasa. Sir Frederick was a director of Legal & General from 1985 to 1993. What the relevance of these qualifications is to the requirements of the chair of the CCRC - who will be required to "direct and supervise investigations into possible miscarriages of justice" - are not immediately clear.

Among the rejected applicants was Chris Price, who as Labour MP for Lewisham in the 1970s took on the case of Maxwell Comfait. His sterling efforts in exposing police corruption led to Comfait being cleared - one of the first miscarriage of justice victims.

Jim Nichol, the solicitor on the Bridgewater Four case, says: "Sir Frederick Crawford has no track record in the area of miscarriages of justice. I have not been able to find any record of his having spoken out on injustice anywhere."

In the press release announcing his appointment, the Home Office boasted that the selection for this post was one of the first to be carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the Nolan Committee on Standards of Public Life.

The civil liberties group Liberty is concerned that the remaining 10 appointees to the Commission should be representative of society. John Wadham, general secretary of Liberty, said: "We would like to see journalists, lawyers and campaigners who have been involved in miscarriages of justice represented on the Commission, not just people drawn from the great and the good." Julian Gibbs of the Home Office Criminal Cases Unit confirmed that applicants for the other 10 places are now being interviewed.

The CCRC is to be served by the police, so continuing what many regard as the Achilles' heel of police investigations - namely the police investigating the police. Furthermore, the CCRC is to be based around Sir Frederick in Birmingham, so the nearest available force to provide police services will be the West Midlands - a force that has been associated with miscarriages of justice in recent years.

Jim Nichol is also concerned about the involvement of the police with the new body. "Unless there is independent investigation of miscarriages of justice - other than by the police - the situation will not improve," he said. John Wadham welcomed a new body on miscarriages of justice, but was "very concerned that the police will continue to investigate these cases".

The CCRC, it would seem, will have a largely supervisory role, with the police continuing to carry out the investigations. The commission will "approve the choice of investigating officer" and "be able to require that another person is selected and appointed if they are not satisfied with the person chosen", according to the Home Office. The CCRC will "direct and supervise investigation into possible miscarriages of justice". The framework adopted for the CCRC in the Criminal Appeal Act appears very similar to that of the Police Complaints Authority.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against the CCRC comes from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth. In rejecting the need for a similar review body in Scotland, he said: "I think it is right that a decision to refer a case or not to the Court of Appeal should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and for which the Secretary of State has to account. That is the present position. If it were made by a quango, that would not be the position."

The barrister Nick Brown, who represented the Birmingham Six and East Ham Two, said: "The Criminal Cases Review Commission should be a purely investigative body carrying out independent inquiries for prisoners." He believes that the petitioner should then have "direct access to the Court of Appeal and it should then be for the court to examine the issues of law in a public accountable way". Instead, what seems to be happening with the CCRC is "the quasi-judicial powers that the Home Secretary has acquired to himself in referring cases are now being passed to the Commission."

There were 426 cases investigated by the C3 department of the Home Office last year and 200 are under investigation at present. Once it becomes operational, the new commission will be the only route to freedom for innocent prisoners. The danger must be that in creating a CCRC led by a plasma scientist and possibly packed with members of the great and the good, the Home Secretary is simply trying to cut himself off from an area that has been of constant embarrassment.

Certainly first indications concerning this long-awaited "reform" do not bode well for those innocent prisoners who remain in prison.

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