In 1996 the CCRC took over the duties of examining suspect cases from C3 in the Home Office. Glenys Stacey, Chief Executive, reviews its progress:
THE FIRST YEAR OF THE CRIMINAL CASE REVIEW COMMISSION.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission was formed in January this year (1997), with the remit to review and investigate suspected miscarriages of justice, and more broadly to promote confidence in the criminal justice system. To a large extent, the Commission takes responsibility for the casework for which Tom Sargant is renowned. In doing so, we face a different set of challenges, in the interpretation of untested legislative provisions, and in the management of an unpredictable volume of work.
Equally important is our relationship with applicants and potential applicants, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the legal process and suspicious of the formation of another establishment body. We are aware that we will only prove ourselves to applicants by the way we respond to them. We are committed to providing a quality service which recognises the genuine concerns of applicants, and responds to them sensitively, while meeting our responsibilities to act impartially and thoroughly.
Our initial estimates of the number of applications to the Commission have turned out to be broadly right. We expect to receive roughly double the number of applications that were submitted to the Home Office annually. We started work on 31st March, and we have received over 1000 applications for review so far. However, our initial concern about the potential volume of summary conviction applications has been abated, at least for the moment, as only 7% of applications are in relation to summary matters.
Our priorities, in our first year, have been in establishing and managing our finances, recruiting and training staff, implementing our IT strategy, developing our case processes and policies, and, of course, tackling the body of cases transferred to us from the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office. As you would expect, a small number of those cases have taken up a disproportionate amount of our resources.
Our financial arrangements are now established. The Home Office (our sponsor body) provides finance to meet our best estimate of known requirements, and has been helpful in making provision for case-led expenditure. As yet, we cannot say how much that will be overall, but we are building up our understanding of the broad range of expenditure that we can expect to incur in getting to the root of cases.
Much of our efforts this year have been devoted to recruitment and training. We currently employ twenty Case Review Managers (with another five ready to join us in the New Year), a Legal Adviser, an Investigations Adviser, and the usual complement of support staff. In selecting Case Review Managers, we have sought people with an understanding and experience of the criminal justice system, good analytical skills, and an eye for detail. Most of the successful candidates are lawyers.
We have been very fortunate in the help and co-operation we have received from others experienced in investigating suspected miscarriages of justice. Representatives from Rough Justice, Trial and Error, World in Action and Justice have participated in our training initiatives, and given us the benefit of their expertise. Our training efforts are now focussed on familiarising staff in the use of our developing IT systems: to assist us in handling and interrogating large volumes of case papers, we have developed our IT strategy to include electronic document management, optical character recognition and data-mining facilities. We need to be able to search easily and reliably through large numbers of documents in cases, and these systems will enable us to search documents not just in one case, but across our entire caseload.
At the same time, we are developing our working practices and policies through ad-hoc working groups, informed by the experience of reviewing and investigating cases. In practice, individual Case Review Managers are responsible for cases, taking advice appropriately from our Legal and Investigations Advisers, and raising pertinent issues with Members of the Commission for advice and decisions.
In the majority of cases, a resource-intensive review is required. Many applications are submitted with only limited details, and we frequently rely on the provisions of section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act to obtain or preserve documents or other material from public bodies. The review and investigation may extend to meetings with applicants and their lawyers (where instructed), site visits to the scenes of crime, the examination of voluminous documents from the courts, the CPS and the police, the collection of forensic and other evidence, and the commissioning of further tests. Generally, the review is conducted using our own resources and skills, obtaining expert opinion when necessary.
Despite the fact that legal aid is available under the Legal Aid Advice and Assistance scheme, to cover preparing an application to the Commission and assisting and advising the client during the Commission's review and investigation, only one in ten applicants to the Commission are legally represented. We have been working with the Legal Aid Board and representatives of the legal profession, to raise awareness of the availability of legal aid, and the Legal Aid Board has proposed amendments to its Advice and Assistance guidance notes, to assist the Commission in raising awareness.
So far as the provisions of the Act itself are concerned, a few considerations have already emerged. For example, it would be helpful in investigations where a witness is terminally ill if we could preserve evidence for consideration by the Court of Appeal. As we gain experience of the strengths and limitations of our statutory provisions, we will recommend modifications to those provisions.
All in all, it has been a busy first year. We are looking forward to an equally busy and productive 1998.
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