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Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice: children need more direct attention from miscarriage of justice watchdog

Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice: In the Interests of Justice – An inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission 

A cross-party inquiry has concluded that delay in the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) affects children more severely. The inquiry found children are in danger of failing to access the CCRC and are at heightened risk from undue delay in having wrongful convictions or unfair sentences corrected. Youth-focused recommendations include the creation of a specialist youth justice unit; the prioritisation of case reviews of prisoners sentenced while still children; and the urgent review of the substantial injustice test in relation to joint enterprise appeals.

Details

The CCRC, as the only body able to refer rejected cases back to the appeal courts, is the last chance for justice for the wrongly convicted. When children are wrongly convicted after retrial, the CCRC provides a route to the Court of Appeal, as well as to reopening convictions arising from improperly advised guilty pleas.

Amid criticism of the CCRC’s work, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice set up the Westminster Commission, an independent inquiry into the CCRC. The Westminster Commission has now reported. Just for Kid’s Law gave evidence to the inquiry as to the disproportionate impact of CCRC delays on children.

The report finds that despite some commendable efforts from the CCRC, the distinct needs of children and young people demand greater attention. They are less likely to be reached in the CCRC’s usual processes, disadvantaged in sustaining an application to the organisation, and disproportionately affected by a wrongful period of conviction at a critical stage of development.

Youth justice is one part of a report considering the CCRC’s performance more generally. Several of its recommendations are, however, directly relevant to youth justice:

  • the CCRC should prioritise case reviews of prisoners under the age of 18 when sentenced
  • there should be funding for a specialist unit at the CCRC to deal with youth justice cases and to proactively identify young people who may have been wrongly convicted
  • the remit of advocacy services in under-18 custodial establishments should be extended to include advice on applying to the CCRC
  • the Law Commission should be directed to urgently consider statutory change to remove the ‘substantial injustice’ test currently applied by the Court of Appeal.

The report’s other recommendations include a new statutory referral test to embolden the CCRC, an enforcement mechanism to make more robust its investigative powers to reliably obtain material to progress its investigations, and the strengthening of key decision-maker roles.

Commentary

 The recommendations specific to youth justice are soft changes which do not directly benefit children and young people or practitioners unless and until they become policy. They might, however, be relied upon to support a request for the CCRC to expedite the review of a youth justice case. There remains much work to maximise the chances of the wider recommendations being implemented to increase the effectiveness of the CCRC’s case reviews across the board. However, the report is a step towards a more effective safety net for the wrongly convicted: children and young people certainly among them.

Written by Alex Kane, at APPEAL