Criminal review body deluged with cases

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The Independent Online
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the new government watchdog on miscarriages of justice, faces an initial avalanche of cases amid a shortfall in fully trained staff, an ongoing dispute with the Home Office over funding and crucial computer systems not yet in place.

The disclosures came as the commission began work on the 251 cases it has received in its first week of operation, and as Sir Frederick Crawford, its chairman, broke the lengthy silence since his appointment last year to hold his first press conference.

The occasion was not, however, marked by any conclusions Sir Frederick - a former university administrator and prominent Freemason with no experience of criminal justice - may have reached about the state of the system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the commission's remit.

With his administrator's hat firmly in place, he said: "My role is to set up the commission and get it working effectively and efficiently and, as far as finances are concerned, as economically as possible".

It was clear yesterday that reliance is going to be placed on the 14- strong Birmingham-based body's better-known members, such as Karamjit Singh, a former Police Complaints Authority member who will serve full- time, to help present its human face and build public confidence.

Under intense questioning about his membership of the Freemasons, Sir Frederick insisted that no question of conflict of interest would arise because he would not be undertaking casework.

It was also apparent that he envisages little alternative to using the police to investigate themselves when police misconduct or failure is alleged. "There may be alternative ways of producing the same result but it is very difficult to find the necessary expertise and access," he told the news conference in Birmingham.

But members emphasised yesterday that in contrast to the secretive former Home Office Criminal Cases Unit, or C3, the commission - which has the power to refer suspected miscarriages back to the appeal courts - would be open about its work.

That new openness took the form yesterday of the release of a memorandum to the Commons home affairs select committee about the establishment and operation of the new body. The contents revealed, however, that the much- awaited commission may become the target for complaints about delay.

Concerns about the impact of the influx of cases - likely to be between 500 and 750 in the first year - are such that the paper asks for "suspension of judgement ... as the new body copes with recruitment and training at the same time as the initial wave of cases threatens to submerge it."

There is a "pressing need" for a dozen more caseworkers and the information technology system, crucial for scanning documents and allowing several people to work on a case at any one time, is not yet up and running.

The worst area of financial uncertainty, according to the memorandum, is the cost of extensive investigations by police forces, which "may limit their inclination and capacity to undertake investigations for the CCRC willingly and expeditiously."

One case before the commission that will be subject to delay is that of James Hanratty, widely believed to have been wrongly convicted of the A6 murder.

A recommendation to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has not been included in the file passed from the Home Office to the commission.

Sir Frederick said: "We will not have to start again but we will have to look at it very carefully."

But despite the absence of any mission statement, Sir Frederick emphasised that the commission was looking "very, very carefully" at the impact of the 1986 Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, which governs the destruction of evidence by the police but which did not prevent private firms, such as forensic laboratories, destroying material.

A total of 210 of the 251 cases before the commission yesterday are existing files passed from the Home Office.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of organisations concerned with the justice system, said: "Tremendous hopes have been invested in this commission. It would be tragic if its effectiveness were undermined by the failure to provide resources either with sufficient speed or on a substantial enough scale. Inevitably there was always going to be a backlog of cases which landed on the commission's desk."

John Wadham, director of Liberty, the civil rights organisation, welcomed the commission's independence. He said, however, that the organisation was "concerned that the membership doesn't reflect sufficiently people who have had direct experience of miscarriage of justice cases."

Mr Wadham questioned the continuing use of police officers in re-investigations.