Page last updated at 06:00 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

Appeals need 'bolder' approach

By Danny Shaw
BBC News

Scales of Justice
Richard Foster wants an increase in the number of cases sent to appeal.

The head of the organisation which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice has said he wants to be "bolder" about challenging cases.

Criminal Cases Review Commission head Richard Foster said he and his staff would go "as far as we properly can" to refer cases to the Appeal Court.

On 2007/08 the CCRC completed inquiries into 1,087 convictions and sentences in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But only 27 were referred - the lowest rate since the CCRC was set up in 1997.

In his first interview since his appointment, Mr Foster told the BBC he supported the idea of televising criminal trials, saying the more "open and transparent" the system, the better.

The CCRC investigates cases in which people believe they have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

It has the power to refer cases for appeal where there is a "real possibility" that the conviction will be overturned or the sentence reduced.

I would personally favour televising court proceedings with appropriate safeguards
Richard Foster, CCRC chair

Among those cases referred for appeal were the convictions of Barry George and the "M25 three" - all quashed - and James Hanratty and Jeremy Bamber, both upheld.

However, some legal campaigners and groups representing prisoners say the CCRC is too cautious and by referring only a small proportion of cases it denies justice to people who may be innocent.

Mr Foster said that the CCRC was governed by legislation and had to meet the "real possibility" test before referring a case.

"Real possibility is quite a broad test and it covers everything from a small possibility to a very large one and if we've got any concerns about a case we'll go as far as we properly can to refer that case," he explained.

'Bold by nature'

But the new CCRC chair, who was previously chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, said he would "err on the side of boldness" if there was doubt as to whether or not to send a case back to the appeal courts.

"Might we be a bit more bolder still? Well, I'm quite a bold person by nature and I will be talking to people and encouraging them to be as bold as we properly can.

"I'd rather be criticised for having referred cases for a further look by the court on the grounds that perhaps that there wasn't a great deal in it, than to be criticised for not referring a case where there was any real possibility whatsoever that there might have been a miscarriage," said Mr Foster.

"So if you've got to fall one way of the line rather than the other I know which side I would rather be."

Mr Foster also added his views to the debate about broadcasting court cases.

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, is against the idea, but it recently won the backing of the new Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC.

Safeguards needed

"I would personally favour televising court proceedings with appropriate safeguards," Mr Foster said.

"I think if we were setting up the courts today there wouldn't be any doubt about it - it would be a matter of course that you'd televise proceedings.

"You do need safeguards - safeguards about the identity of the jury, safeguards to make sure that you don't get people playing to the cameras and things of that kind, but within that the more open and transparent you can make the system the better."

According to Mr Foster, one of the other challenges facing the court system was the increasing amount and complexity of legislation, which sometimes led to mistakes made by judges during sentencing.

Mr Foster said he was in favour of codifying criminal laws, so there would be one central index of every offence and the possible sentences.

"There's certainly a very great deal of criminal justice legislation," he said, "and that's been true both under this administration and under previous administrations.

"It's quite interesting to reflect that in England and Wales under our parliament we tend to have a criminal justice act about 12 months, whereas in Scotland, which for many years did not have its own parliament, they seem to have struggled on for several hundred years without having new criminal justice legislation.

"That does give you pause for thought."

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