New body keeps police in charge

Commission set to scrutinise miscarriages of justice, reports Patricia Wynn Davies

Government involvement in resolving claims of miscarriage of justice will finally come to an end in the autumn when the independent Criminal Case Review Commission belatedly begins work nearly three years after its recommendation by the 1993 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice.

But even this much-needed reform has attracted its share of advance criticism because the new body will not mean an end to the police investigating themselves. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, decided that the commission should not have its own, independent, investigating officers. Instead, it will use outside police forces for its inquiries, including those involving investigations of alleged malpractice by other forces.

The commission will have the right to supervise police inquiries if this is "desirable in the public interest" - but is under no duty to do so. The nearest equivalent body is the Police Complaints Authority, which has failed to garner widespread confidence that it is sufficiently at arm's length from the police.

Some critics have warned that these failings risk the credibility of the entire exercise.

There is little doubt, however, that the new body is an improvement on the current system where the Home Secretary decides which cases to refer back to the Court of Appeal, aided by an understaffed, ill-qualified and insufficiently-resourced C3.

The commission will not, for example, be restricted to scrutinising cases involving "fresh evidence", but will be able to look at cases where potentially crucial information has been overlooked or misunderstood, or where the accused was the victim of bad legal advice.

A further novel feature will be the body's power to consider cases from Northern Ireland, and those originally heard in magistrates' courts.

A flood of applications is expected in the commission's first year - possibly up to 1,600, plus several hundred already under Home Office consideration - many of which would have been rejected under the old system.

Mr Howard rejected suggestions that the commission's chairman should not be a judge but has none the less appointed a non-judicial figure, Sir Frederick Crawford, vice-chancellor of Aston University.

Although no building has yet been found to house the new body, the selection of at least 10 other commissioners is currently under way, by a panel comprising Sir Frederick, a Home Office official and two independent members.

One-third of the commissioners will have to be legally qualified and the other two-thirds must have knowledge and experience of the criminal justice system.

In addition, about 60 permanent staff are to be recruited, and in marked contrast to the current set-up at C3, a third of them must be lawyers. There are concerns that some existing C3 staff will be appointed, which will raise the inevitable accusation that practices and attitudes of the past will be perpetuated.

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