Maximising decision making, effectiveness, and accountability at the Criminal Cases Review Commission

High-profile criminal cases often ignite public outcry while putting extreme pressure on police to quickly deliver justice – an emotive mixture, which has resulted in wrongful convictions.

Now, a social scientist from the University of Oxford has completed an exhaustive project to maximise decision making, effectiveness and accountability at the Criminal Cases Review Commission – dubbed the 'last chance saloon' for appeals and overturning incorrect verdicts.

In 2008, Barry George walked free after eight years in jail, when his conviction for murdering TV presenter Jill Dando was quashed. In 2005, dozens of legal asylum seekers and refugees narrowly avoided being wrongly deported back to places where they faced war and torture, after errors in legal process.

These are among the many people spared from miscarriages of justice thanks to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) – the independent body set up to review potential miscarriages of justice. It often deals with high stakes, emotive cases involving prison sentences and wrongful convictions, such as sexual offences and murders. These cases can be at risk from serious professional failings by defence lawyers and prosecutors, failures in police and prosecution disclosure, and shortcomings in forensic and expert evidence.

In addition, the CCRC has itself been criticised – with claims of delays and an over-cautious, inconsistent approach towards referring cases for appeal. As such, the Commission had been cautious about opening itself to external scrutiny.

But Carolyn Hoyle and her research officer from the Oxford Centre for Criminology gained unprecedented access to the CCRC in order to carry out a thorough review – scrutinising operations, generating data about decision making, and recommending practical and cultural changes which were directly adopted – leading to stronger accountability and decision making in three strategic areas. They also successfully campaigned for a change in the law – giving the CRCC extra powers to help investigate miscarriages of justice.

Richard Foster, who was Chairman of the CCRC for 10 years, shared his personal views on the work, which was led by Professor Carolyn Hoyle. He said: "Professor Hoyle was instrumental in challenging what – in my view – had started to become an unduly inward looking culture, and championing the case for a more forward public position.

"Her research was a first class piece of work which played, and is playing, a key role in shaping, the Commission’s approach, and the approach of lawmakers, to identifying and remedying miscarriages of justice.

"The Commission is now much more prepared to speak out where it sees systematic failings. For example, serious professional failings by defence lawyers and prosecutors in asylum and immigration cases and police and prosecution disclosure failures notably in serious sexual offense cases and in short comings in forensic and expert evidence."

Professor Hoyle, who wrote a book based on her research, called Reasons to Doubt: Wrongful Convictions and the Criminal Cases Review Commission, added: "In very serious cases, like murders, there's a huge amount of pressure on the police to get a conviction. That's when you get a high risk of police cutting corners and not putting in place procedural protections; interfering with witnesses, messing up DNA or coercing vulnerable people into confessing – which results in wrongful convictions.

"It matters that we get these cases right. Whether a person is wrongly accused, convicted, or imprisoned, or a guilty verdict is wrongly overturned, it's the worst thing that could happen to the accused and the victim. Compensation can only do so much when lives have been destroyed."

The team's ground-breaking research

First, researchers carried out a scoping study. They gained unique, secure access to the senior management team, staff, and inner workings of the CCRC. They scrutinised processes and protocols, decision making, consistency in standards, and whether teams had sufficient legal powers to do their jobs effectively.

Building on this insight, they devised a major project. They reviewed 146 live and closed cases chosen at random from the CCRC database, and broadly categorised them according to the type of decision-making processes involved. This involved trawling through up to 50 boxes of paper per case, comprising sensitive evidence such as witness statements, psychological assessments, and medical reports.

The team collated quantitative and qualitative data to analyse how appeals for post-conviction review were dealt with. This found several issues – including marked variability and inconsistency in how cases were selected, reviewed, and managed, given the considerable scope for discretion by individual team members. They also found irregular communication with applicants.

Supporting a change in the law

During the study, researchers found that some investigations into possible wrongful convictions had been hindered because the CRCC did not have legal powers to obtain from private bodies evidence which is critical for appeals, such as forensic science data from medical reports or information from care homes or other institutions in the private sector.

Professor Hoyle gave evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee – urging government to introduce a new law to address this. The JC's report echoed her recommendation, and legislation was later introduced. The Commission had failed to achieve this in 10 years of working with successive governments.

Professor Hoyle said this was a powerful development in tackling miscarriages of justice: "Often in sexual offences cases, there's no denial that contact took place; the case revolves around the question of consent, and forensic evidence. Science evolves, and it is critical that the CCRC can obtain all available evidence."

Supporting change within the CRCC

Researchers shared their findings with the CRCC which adopted several recommendations to maximise accountability and effectiveness in three strategic areas – enhancing the consistency of decision making at the case screening stage, increasing the consistency and thoroughness of empirical Case Review practices, and improving the dissemination of internal knowledge and experience about the wider criminal justice system.

This included doubling the number of staff allowed to be involved with different stages of screening appeals. The CRCC also enhanced the quality assurance process for checking the consistency of screening to require sign-off from the Chief Executive or Director of Casework Operations. It created a new process, with documentation, for managing 'exceptional circumstances', and made communication with applicants more proactive, regular, systematic, and face-to-face when appropriate. The authority also implemented systemic learning in the wider criminal justice system.

Dr Foster concluded: "It is my view, as Chair throughout the relevant period, that Professor Hoyle’s work had a profound and entirely positive effect on the Commission’s work, notably in the efficiency and effectiveness of its casework, in its engagement with applicants and stakeholders and in its willingness to commit on and critique the wider justice system."