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Criminal Cases Review Commission (Information) Bill

Volume 771: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

Third Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing forward this Private Member’s Bill—which is something of a misnomer in review of the eminent rank that he achieved in his professional life. The Bill confers powers on the commission to obtain, with the leave of the court, material that may assist it in the exercise of its important functions in reviewing the validity of convictions.

I suspect that the Guardian may not be the Minister’s journal of choice for reading at breakfast, or perhaps at all, but by coincidence it published last week a disturbing critique by Eric Allison, its respected prisons correspondent, of the working of the commission. The report was prompted by a decision of the Court of Appeal that two men who had served 24 years in prison between them after being convicted of crimes that they did not commit were not entitled to compensation. This outcome perhaps reflects a flaw in the system rather than in the court’s judgment, and I invite the Minister to undertake a review of the position with a view to empowering the courts to order compensation where they deem it to be appropriate after quashing a conviction.

The article contains further disturbing material. The commission now receives 130 applications a month, while in addition the universities that run the Innocence Project receive two or three a week. Of course, not all of these will be justified, but it would appear that the commission is struggling to carry out its important role. The commission’s chair says that for every £10 being spent on a case 10 years ago he now has just £4 with which to carry out the work, while the workload has increased by 70%. It is true that only a minority of cases are referred, but of those, 70% succeed on appeal.

Mr Allison is sceptical about the implicit conclusion that most claimants are making false claims, not least because while a claim is pending they will not get parole or better conditions. But even if that were wrong, justice surely demands more support for the commission’s work, not least when one of the contributory causes of wrong convictions is inadequate legal support during the original trial. Given the potential impact of legal aid cuts on the preparation and conduct of trials, that is something that may get worse,

I hope that the Minister, who has facilitated the passage of the Bill and to whom the House is indebted in that respect, will discuss these matters with the commission and ensure that it has the resources required to carry out its duties effectively in this important area of the criminal justice system.

My Lords, as the House will appreciate, we very much welcome the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, apart from commenting on my breakfast-time reading, raised two important points. He will understand that of course I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand the concern that he expressed in relation to compensation. It is not something, as the House will appreciate, that the Criminal Cases Review Commission deals with, so it is outside the scope of the current Bill.

The position, as noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, may remember, is that where there is a miscarriage of justice—and the test was recently altered—it is the state not the courts that is responsible for compensation, and decisions are made on the basis of the statutory test. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for the Court of Appeal to take on this function after overturning a decision of the lower court. If it were to do so, we should need to consider whether a further appeal might lie against a Court of Appeal decision on compensation. So although these matters are always kept under consideration, my initial reaction is that this is not an appropriate way forward.

On the noble Lord’s second question, the CCRC is managed within the same spending review process as the remainder of the Ministry of Justice. The commission must live within its means, as we all must when budgets are tight. To exempt any particular area from finding savings means that the burden of saving falls disproportionately on other areas.

In fact, I do not think that the position is as bad as the noble Lord suggests. Since 2010, the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s annual budget has been reduced from £6.47 million to £5.178 million—a cut in real terms of 26%. During the same period, the Ministry of Justice’s net settlement was reduced in real terms by 35%—so the commission has fared well compared with other areas in the ministry. Indeed, the commission’s budget for the last three years has remained at £5.178 million, in part specifically to recognise the need for the CCRC to continue to take proactive steps to address its backlog. The budget for 2016-17 will also ensure that the CCRC can continue to prioritise tackling the backlog.

Furthermore, this is not simply a matter of resources. In these straitened financial times we expect all agencies and services to make efficiencies and improvements to their processes to provide the very best level of service. The focus over the last two years has been on efficiency, not savings—doing more with the existing level of resource. The CCRC has worked to manage its caseload more effectively by reviewing all its work practices and by making improvements. Since 2010, the commission has improved its performance. It closed 947 cases in 2010-11. That rose to 1,632 cases in 2014-15.

The Government congratulate the commission on the work that it does. It is a very valuable function. The Bill will assist it further in the discharge of its duties. It extends its scope to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We now have a legislative consent Motion to legislate on behalf of Northern Ireland. I repeat my welcome for the Bill.

Motion agreed.

Bill passed.