After Bridgewater: Justice watchdog 'no match for police'

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It is Britain's first official body set up to right wrongs, but the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which starts work on 1 April, is already arousing as much scepticism as hope.

The Birmingham-based quango, prompted by the release of the Birmingham Six, has 13 members, a staff of 35 officials, and is headed by a scientist. Experts in miscarriages of justice, however, are already questioning its ability to take on the might of the judiciary and police.

Chris Mullin, the Labour MP who campaigned vigorously on behalf of the Birmingham Six and undertook to investigate their case himself, has grave doubts about the commission. "The omens are not auspicious," he said. "It is a committee composed almost entirely of people who have never exhibited the slightest curiosity about the official version of events in their entire lives. With one or two exceptions, it is a very disappointing bunch of people."

John Hutton MP, a Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, along with Mr Mullin, said he could not understand why nobody had been appointed "with any background in the criminal justice system or miscarriages of justice. They are all government appointments and they do not inspire me with any confidence".

The chairman is a case in point. For someone about to take one of the most high-profile jobs in the land, Sir Frederick Crawford, so far at least, has kept a decidedly low profile. Oddly, given the furore surrounding the Carl Bridgewater case, he refused to comment on the release of the three men convicted of the newspaper boy's murder.

Sir Frederick, the former vice-chancellor of Aston University, has no experience of criminal law. He is a plasma scientist and university administrator. He is also a prominent freemason - something that has not gone unnoticed among the new body's critics, many of whom blame freemasonry in the police and judiciary for the wall of silence surrounding dubious convictions.

The chairman will work part-time - "80 per cent of the time" said a commission spokesman - for which he will be paid pounds 88,000 a year. Underneath him come:

n Fiona King, an ex-prosecuting solicitor for the Crown Prosecution Service in Kent and Sussex;

n Lawrence Oaks, a former partner in Nabarro Nathanson, London commercial lawyers;

n David Kyle, until recently the chief crown prosecutor in the CPS's central casework division, dealing with many major cases;

n John Leckey, the coroner in Belfast;

n Jill Gorst, a criminal barrister and chair of the VAT tribunal;

n Baden Skitt, a former Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner and Chief Constable of Hertfordshire;

n John Knox, former deputy director of the Serious Fraud Office, an accountant;

n Dr James McKeith, a consultant forensic psychiatrist;

n Karamjit Singh, a Civil Service Commissioner and member of the West Midlands Police Authority;

n Professor Leonard Leigh, a solicitor and barrister in Canada and, until recently, Professor of Criminal Law at the London School of Economics.

These are the commission's "legal" members, of which Messrs Skitt, Kyle, Singh and Leigh will be full-time. They will be joined by three lay members: Edward Weiss, a pensions and accountancy expert; Andrew Foster, former head of a division of ICI, and Barry Capon, ex-chief of Norfolk County Council.

All members will be paid the pro-rata equivalent of pounds 60,000 a year. Anyone who believes they, or a relative, has suffered a miscarriage of justice can write in. "Somebody can write on behalf of Guy Fawkes if they want to," said the commission spokesman.

In the initial handover from C3, the Home Office department dealing with potential miscarriages, they expect to receive around 200 cases.

In the coming years they expect, said the spokesman, perhaps with a touch of understatement, "to be very busy".

They will examine some cases themselves or ask a chief constable from an outside force to investigate. It is this, in addition to the lack of defence expertise, which worries Mr Mullin. "They are heavily dependent on the police to carry out their investigations and if there is any lesson from the Bridgewater case it is that no matter how many police investigations you have you don't arrive at the truth."

One of the first cases the new body will have to consider is that of the Cardiff Three. In 1988, three teenagers, Darren Hall, Michael O'Brien and Ellis Sherwood, were sentenced to life for the murder of Phillip Saunders, a newsagent. There are strong parallels with the Bridgewater case. The three were rounded up after an intensive, frantic police operation; Hall confessed after three days of interrogation, naming the other two; evidence helpful to the defence was withheld from the jury; no forensic evidence was introduced.

Whether the new body is up to cases of this magnitude - the Three are a cause celebre in South Wales - remains to be seen.