An ideal solution – or commission impossible?

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has a daunting brief – to restore public confidence in a discredited criminal justice system.

And now that it is about to swing into action, the question on everybody's lips is whether the new commission will be up to the job or, in the words of one sceptic, whether it will be “a fig-leaf, very little more than a quango version of what existed before”.

The commission, born in the wake of a series of high-profile cases such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, was set up to investigate possible miscarriages of justice and refer appropriate cases to the Court of Appeal, on the recommendation of the 1993 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. It followed complaints that the previous appeal process, controlled by the Home Secretary, was too closely linked to politics.

The creation of an independent review body was universally welcomed by those working in the legal profession as a positive step forward, but already certain details of the new body are causing concern.

One is that the police force originally involved in the case under review will also usually be investigating the same case on behalf of the commission, although the body does have power to call in individual experts or appoint police officers from another force. The police force involved will also pay for the investigation.

Robert Roscoe, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association and chair of the Law Society criminal committee, said: “In our experience as practising lawyers, investigating police officers are open to persuasion by fellow officers. And even if there is complete integrity, an unsuccessful appellant will always have a feeling that his case has not been properly and impartially investigated if the investigation is carried out by the same police force as was involved in the prosecution.”

The Bar Council shares this concern. It campaigned unsuccessfully for the commission to have the power to appoint members of its own staff as investigators.

Legal commentators are also disappointed that, out of 850 applicants, there are no law-yers with the right sort of experience of defending in criminal cases or acting in appeals in the commission. And the revelation that its chairman, Sir Frederick Crawford, former vice- chancellor of Aston University, was a freemason did little to improve its credibility as an independent body.

Roscoe said he was concerned that the commission's make-up did not represent the proper balance of the criminal justice system. “I am prepared to have an open mind but I suspect that, judging by the composition of the commission, the arrangements made to fund the investigation and the apparent lack of finance that that indicates, it is going to be no more than a sop to the Government.”

Martin Short, a writer on organised crime, corruption and freemasonry in the UK, said: “On the basis of what we know about it, I do not think it will achieve its main aim, which is to restore public confidence in the English justice system.”

The commission, whose 11 members include CPS chief crown prosecutor David Kyle, former CPS assistant chief crown prosecutor Fiona King and former deputy director of the Serious Fraud Office John Knox, came into being on 1 January and takes over casework from the 31 March, with predictions that it will be inundated with complaints from convicted criminals.

Razia Karim, legal officer at human rights organisation Justice, said: “We hope that the commissioners will use this teething-in time to talk to organisations like Justice and Liberty and other penal affairs groups to get a more global view on penal affairs and miscarriages of justice.”