New body to review 'wrongful' convictions: Aim to restore confidence in justice

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AN INDEPENDENT body to investigate possible miscarriges of justice is to be set up, ending the Home Secretary's role in deciding whether cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal.

This fundamental change in the appeals mechanism is intended to restore public confidence after a series of devastating cases, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

The move, which is part of a package of measures included in a government discussion document published yesterday, received a mixed response with some campaigners criticising the continued role of the police in carrying out investigations into alleged miscarriages of justice.

Police chiefs yesterday said they had 'serious concern' about the cost of the inquiries and called for extra funding.

It is proposed that the new body, the Criminal Cases Review Authority, would take over the Home Secretary's powers in handling alleged miscarriages, and would be able to order fresh inquiries and refer cases to the Court of Appeal for review. Currently, the Home Office considers about 700 cases a year, and refers about 10 for appeal.

The document also includes suggestions for new arrangements for appeals against decisions in magistrates' courts, including a fast track procedure where cases turned out to be based on wrong information.

The proposed authority, comprising lawyers and lay members chosen by the Prime Minister, is hoped to be in operation by next year and will replace the Home Office's C3 department.

The present system has been severely criticised for the Home Office's reluctance to refer cases for appeal. Most of the recent miscarriages of justice required lengthy public campaigns and pressure from leading legal and church figures before their referral.

The new team is expected to have a similar number of assessors as the C3 department, which has 21. Reformers say this figure is too low to examine many appeals in detail.

The discussion paper, which asks for responses from interested parties by 31 May, says the Government believes it is essential for the authority to be able to use the expertise of the police in criminal investigations. The proposals suggest the authority could either ask one police force to investigate alleged misconduct by another, or have a number of police officers seconded to it.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, speaking at the document's launch, said: 'I think on the whole we have a system of criminal justice which results in relatively few convictions of the innocent.

'But one conviction is one too many, which is why we want to have in place arrangements which are going to try to eliminate those miscarriages.'

Several reformers yesterday expressed concern about the central role of the police in the proposals.

Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland South who played a key role in the campaign to free the Birmingham Six, said: 'If the new authority is dependent on the police to carry out investigations on its behalf, it will be a fatal flaw.'