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The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) Explained

Author: Niall Hearty  6 February 2024
7 min read

In some situations, a person who is convicted of an offence may want to appeal against their conviction and / or their sentence. The grounds for this may vary from case to case. They could, to take two examples, contest the decision to find them guilty on a point of law or because they disagree with the evidence that was relied on by the prosecution.

In such circumstances, a person is able to seek a hearing at a court to appeal against their conviction or sentence. But if they are unsuccessful at that court appeal hearing they may be able to take their case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

What is the Criminal Cases Review Commission?

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is an independent body that was set up to investigate cases where it is suspected that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Its role is to identify and investigate possible miscarriages of justice and, by doing this, promote public confidence in the criminal justice system.

It does not work for the government, courts, police, or the prosecution. The CCRC acts impartially – meaning it favours neither the person appealing against their conviction or the authority that brought the prosecution that led to that conviction. It has the power to obtain information from public bodies or individuals to investigate a case that is brought to it.

Why was the Criminal Cases Review Commission established?

A series of high-profile miscarriages of justice in the 1970s exposed weaknesses in the criminal justice system, leading to the establishment of a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. Its recommendations led to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

What does the Criminal Cases Review Commission do?

The CCRC looks into criminal cases where people believe they have been wrongly convicted or wrongly sentenced. As the purpose of the CCRC is to investigate cases where people have been convicted and have lost an appeal in court against that conviction or the sentence they received, it is the last remaining chance a person has to have their case referred back to the court for a further appeal.

The CCRC will consider all the evidence and any relevant circumstances relating to the case. If new information about the case has come to light and the CCRC believes that this means a person now has a good chance of obtaining a different outcome at another appeal court hearing, it will send the case back to the appeal court to be re-examined.

The Commission can also:

  • Be asked by the Court of Appeal to investigate and report on an issue in an ongoing appeal it is considering, so that it can conclude the case.
  • Be asked for advice by the Secretary of State for Justice when they are considering advising the king to issue a royal pardon.
  • Refer cases to the Secretary of State for Justice where it feels that a royal pardon should be considered.

How do you apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission?

If you believe that you have been wrongly convicted or wrongly sentenced by a criminal court in England, Wales or Northern Ireland – and you have lost an appeal against your conviction or sentence - you can apply to the CCRC to refer your case to a court for another appeal.

An application needs to be made in writing by post or using the CCRC online application form. This is something where it can help to have the assistance of a solicitor, as the process can be complicated.

Once you have applied, the CCRC will check the following;

  • if you have already tried to appeal.
  • that they have the legal powers to deal with your case.
  • if you have applied to us before about the same conviction.

What powers does the Criminal Cases Review Commission have?

Under Section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, (1) the CCRC has the powers to gain information from public bodies - including local councils, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police - that other people and organisations cannot obtain.

This means it may discover evidence that can help a person that is seeking another appeal against their conviction and / or sentence. Section 18A of the same Act enables the CCRC to seek a Crown Court order to obtain material from a private individual or organisation.

The CCRC also has the power to request that any documents relevant to the case are kept and presented to it. It can also re-interview existing witnesses who were involved in the trial and interview potential new witnesses. It will also, when necessary, consider new case law and instruct scientific experts.

What is needed for a case to be reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission

The CCRC only takes on cases that have already been the subject of a court appeal hearing. If a person applies to it without having had an appeal hearing in court, the CCRC will ask that person to seek such an appeal first before applying to it.

The CCRC will only normally consider a case if there are fresh grounds for a new appeal. Disagreeing with the original court’s verdict or the outcome of an appeal is not grounds for the CCRC taking on a case. There has to be new evidence that has come to light since the original trial or a whole new legal argument (possibly from another case) that has the potential to have an impact on the case. If there is neither of these, the CCRC is unlikely to take a case on and begin its investigations.

For the CCRC to refer a case for appeal, it has to think the new information is convincing enough that there is a real possibility that the appeal court will overturn the conviction. If it refers a sentence for appeal, it must be convinced there is a real possibility that the court will reduce the sentence.

What happens during a CCRC review?

The usual steps involved in a Criminal Cases Review Commission review are;

  1. The CCRC will examine all available evidence, seek to obtain new evidence it believes may exist, and will interview witnesses and possible new witnesses when it thinks it necessary.
  2. If, after doing this, the CCRC thinks that there is a good chance that a conviction is unsafe and could be quashed - or that the sentence that was handed down could or should be changed - it will refer the case back to an appeal court for re-examination.
  3. The CCRC will prepare a Statement of Reasons, outlining why it has come to its decision. A copy of this is given to anyone likely to be involved in the proceedings.
  4. The case will then go back to court and be treated like any other criminal appeal.
     

Where are appeals heard?

If the CCRC refers a case for appeal, where it is heard will depend on where the person who sought the appeal (the appellant) was originally convicted and/or sentenced.

  • If a person was sentenced or convicted in a Magistrates’ Court, the appeal will be heard in the Crown Court.
  • If a person was convicted or sentenced in the Crown Court, their appeal will be heard by the Court of Appeal.

What legal costs are associated with an appeal?

The CCRC is a public, government-funded body that does not charge a fee for applications. But there will be legal costs associated with the process of making an application and responding to any developments that result from this.

How long does the Criminal Cases Review Commission take to review an application?

As each application to it is different, there is no average timescale for a CCRC case. It could take little time for the CCRC to review a relatively straightforward case, whereas an application that is complicated or requires more investigation could take far longer to conclude.

But it is likely to take at least 12 months before the CCRC reviews an application made to it.

Is there a statute of limitation on applying to the CCRC?

There is no time limit on making an application to the CCRC. But the longer it is left before making an application, the more difficult it can be to be successful. This is because documentation may be lost or destroyed over time and witnesses may no longer be available to be interviewed.

What are considered exceptional circumstances when applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission?

An application to the CCRC can usually only be made after all other options have been explored by a person looking to have their conviction quashed or their sentence reviewed.

A person, in normal circumstances, will have had to have brought an appeal unsuccessfully at another court before the CCRC will consider the case. But the CCRC may consider a case that has not already been the subject of an appeal if there are exceptional circumstances.

Such exceptional circumstances are very rare. There has to be a good reason why a person did not appeal to a court before applying to the CCRC. The CCRC will decide if there are exceptional circumstances based on the facts of each case.

What are not considered exceptional circumstances when applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission?

If a person forgot to appeal or missed a deadline for appealing, they can still ask the court for an appeal - this is called appealing out of time. Forgetting to appeal or missing a deadline, therefore, will not be considered by the CCRC as an exceptional circumstance.

Receiving advice from a solicitor or barrister that there are no grounds for appeal does not stop a person from appealing, so the CCRC will not consider this an exceptional circumstance. The CCRC will also not view a person’s inability to hire a solicitor or barrister to help with an appeal as an exceptional circumstance, as an application for an appeal can be made without legal assistance.

When should someone apply?

A person can make an application to the CCRC at any time after their court appeal hearing has been unsuccessful. But they should really apply to the CCRC as soon as possible, otherwise there is a risk that vital documentation may be lost or destroyed or witnesses may no longer be able to be interviewed.

Conclusion

A CCRC application can be a vitally important course of action for those looking to have a conviction quashed or their sentence reduced.

Such an application can be made by a person at any time after their unsuccessful appeal against conviction or sentence. But it is important that such an application is made at the right time, in the correct way, and emphasises in the strongest and most appropriate manner the grounds for the application. That can require professional legal expertise.

As a firm with in-depth experience of all aspects of the criminal justice system, Rahman Ravelli is ideally placed to provide that expertise.

Niall Hearty C 07998

Niall Hearty

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