In 1992, I was Shadow Home Secretary Roy Hattersley’s deputy. This was at the time of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, and I became intimately involved in those controversial cases. Since then, justice has been a key focus of mine and three years ago I helped set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice to coordinate the campaign in Westminster.
With help from my colleague Sir Bob Neil MP, we have built up a group with very good membership in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To begin, we had very engaging seminar discussions and some lively campaigns. Over time, we narrowed down our focus and put together a commission to look at the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The CCRC was setup in 1997 after several high-profile miscarriage of justice cases. It investigates criminal cases to see whether the convictions are ‘safe’ and passes certain cases on to be reviewed by the Court of Appeal. It is an important avenue of redress for those who have been wrongfully convicted and, over twenty years on from its inception, we thought it was a good time to take stock of the CCRC’s work.
After a year of speaking to experts and taking evidence, our commission has published a high-quality report, with constructive suggestions for improvement and reform of the CCRC. Last week, I secured a Westminster Hall Debate in Parliament to discuss the report with the minister and highlight its conclusions.
The main recommendation is that the CCRC is too deferential to the Court of Appeal, with the current criteria for passing a case onto them acting as a brake on the CCRC’s freedom of decision. There is a need for new criteria – a new test – to encourage more courageous decision making.
The second recommendation concerns resources. The Ministry of Justice has experienced the biggest cuts of any Department in the past decade. There is no doubt that this had had an impact on the amount of miscarriages of justice. At a time when the CCRC has been more needed than ever to address these miscarriages, its budget has also been slashed; the report found that the CCRC urgently needs more resources to fulfil its role. The Government cannot do justice on the cheap.
The third recommendation was about investigative powers. The inquiry revealed one instance where the CCRC had waited over 1000 days for a public body to comply with a disclosure request. The principle of open justice is founded on accountability and transparency. These qualities need to be at the heart of the justice system to maintain public confidence – and the CCRC needs the investigatory powers to reflect that.
In the Westminster Hall debate, I raised the shocking fact that people who are wrongfully convicted can spend decades in prison before finally having their conviction overturned. Then, when they leave prison, some receive not one penny of compensation. I believe that victims of miscarriages of justice deserve far better support, both financial and practical, as they reintegrate into a society that has failed to provide them with justice the first time round.
If you would like to read my speech in the Westminster Hall debate on strengthening the CCRC, as well as the response of the Minister, you can do so here.