Royal Commission on Criminal Justice: Reformers applaud proposal for body to review cases: New authority would examine possible miscarriages of justice. Terry Kirby and Heather Mills report

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A NEW body to investigate possible miscarriages of justice - ending the Home Secretary's role in ruling whether cases should be referred back to the Court of Appeal - is the Royal Commission's most important recommendation.

It was welcomed last night by legal reformers. Although some said it did not go far enough, the Bar Council and police service, which emphasised that it would help to improve public confidence. Reformers also applauded the commission's recommendations regarding the role of the Court of Appeal - which some see as a rebuke to the court for failing to recognise earlier miscarriages, such as the Birmingham Six case.

The new body would replace the Home Office's C3 department in investigating the kind of cases which led to the commission - the Guildford Four and Maguire family miscarriages as well as the Birmingham Six - all of which required lengthy public campaigns and pressure upon the Home Office from leading legal and church figures before their eventual referral back to the Court of Appeal. Both the Guildford and Maguire cases were earlier rejected by the Home Secretary on the recommendation of C3's civil servants.

Subsequent referrals have led to the court quashing convictions in the Tottenham Three and the Stefan Kiszko case as well as appeals connected with the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. Recently, the Home Office has been criticised for refusing to refer back the Carl Bridgewater murder case. In all cases, lawyers have complained about difficulties in persuading C3 of the validity of new evidence and have argued that officials are reluctant to allow the court to decide issues.

The proposed new body - the Criminal Cases Review Authority - was the most fundamental recommendation the commission could have made, although some might argue that it did not need a two-year inquiry to reach the conclusion that it was 'neither necessary nor desirable' for the Home Secretary to continue in the role.

Successive Conservative Home Secretaries, including Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Clarke, have recognised the weaknesses of C3 and accepted the need for change. Largely because the Home Secretary does not want to be seen to be usurping the function of a judge and jury, he is only likely to entertain cases only where fresh evidence has come to light. There is no provision to look at cases where there may be a 'lurking doubt', despite the fact that convicted people lack the resources to unearth new material.

The commission says the new authority, comprising both lay members and lawyers appointed by the Lord Chancellor, would consider submissions, supervise investigations and refer cases to the court. Crucially, the report says, it should have 'operational independence' and be 'proactive' when investigating alleged miscarriages. 'It will need no further justification than a conclusion on the part of its members that there is, or may be something on investigation, to justify referring it to the Court of Appeal.'

When applications are rejected, the report says, defendants should be given a full explanation, rather than, as is often currently the case, a relatively short note.

The proposals retain a central concern of reformers - that the police will still be charged with conducting the new investigation of the case, despite suspicions that officers are unlikely to want to expose weaknesses in their own prosecutions.

At a press conference yesterday, Lord Runciman emphasised that it had been investigations by outside forces which had resulted in many recent miscarriages being overturned. He also said that, despite the retention of the police report by the new authority, a situation which concerns reformers, the emphasis would be on the new body to disclose everything relevant to the defendants.

Justice, the legal reform organisation, yesterday repeated its demands that an interim tribunal should be set up immediately to investigate the most worrying cases.

In a series of recommendations, the commission urges the Court of Appeal to be 'more prepared' to quash convictions when there is no fresh evidence, but where the judges believe the jury's verdict may be unsafe - the so-called 'lurking doubt' cases.

It also says the court should be prepared to accept fresh evidence more readily and recognise errors by trial lawyers as grounds for appeal.

In a note of dissent, Professor Michael Zander, who is supported by Yve Newbold, another commissioner, contests the conclusion that convictions can be upheld despite serious misconduct by the prosecution, if there is other evidence against the convicted person. Professor Zander writes: 'The moral foundation of the criminal justice requires that if the prosecution has employed foul means, the defendant must go free.'