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The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is the criminal justice system’s safety net. Independent of the courts, prosecution and defence, the CCRC investigates possible miscarriages of justice in the criminal courts of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission reviews possible wrongful convictions in Scottish courts.

In addition to the cases of applicants who have exhausted their appeal rights, it investigates cases on its own initiative and those referred to it by the Court of Appeal. Where it finds new evidence that raises a real possibility that a conviction or sentence would not be upheld on appeal, it has the power to refer the case to the appellate courts for a fresh appeal.

The CCRC was a key recommendation of the Runciman Commission established in 1991 following the quashing of the convictions of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six. Introducing the subsequent Criminal Appeal Act 1995 at its Second Reading in the House of Commons, then Home Secretary Michael Howard spoke of the ‘common interest’ in ensuring the criminal justice system has ‘the best machinery for investigating possible miscarriages of justice’.

However the CCRC has been accused of timidity in its dealings with the Court of Appeal and of being so cautious in its approach that it has failed to refer a sufficient number of cases to the appeal courts, including ‘obvious’ miscarriages of justice. Critics say its test for referrals – whether there is a real possibility that the appeal court would not uphold the conviction or sentence – both leaves the CCRC subordinate to the Court of Appeal and leads it to adopt a highly restrictive review of cases, looking not for miscarriages of justice but instead weighing up a case’s chance in court. Whilst campaigners argue this allows wrongful convictions to go uncorrected, the current arrangement between the CCRC and Court of Appeal is defended by Lord Runciman and the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, who point out the CCRC is not a court and its commissioners not judges.

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