The Runciman Commission

The Runciman Commission by Zander and Henderson is probably the most significant study of Crown Court cases embarked upon. Within this report 22,000 people were consulted who were involved in 3,000 Crown Court cases. This report included views of lawyers, judges, clerks, jurors, police and defendants. It is a startling fact that 8 % of cases who defence lawyers anticipated to be weak reached convictions and a further 6% of prosecution barristers thought weak and 4% of judges thought weak all reached convictions.

In addition to this a further 31 defendants pleaded guilty to offences they had not committed, reasons for this varied from gaining a less severe sentence, they were advised to do so by their lawyers or to avoid a trial. This represents clear evidence that the Criminal Trial Process is still convicting innocent people in what appears to be quite significant numbers. Furthermore to these findings another startling unearthing was the contribution of poor defence lawyers who have recently been cited as contributing to the miscarriages of justice.

It was also discovered that on third of Crown Court cases were handled by clerks, one third of all barristers were introduced to defendants one day before the trial and some on morning of the trial. This adds further to the dismal picture of the duty owed to upon the defendant by the criminal trial process. Research undertaken for the Royal Commission by Kate Malleson of the London School of Economics found that judge's mistakes are by far the most common ground for successful appeals against conviction.

The research discovered that in about 80% of cases where convictions were quashed, there had been an error at the trial; in most instances it was a judicial error. Of 300 appeals in 1990, just over one-third were successful. Of those appealing two thirds of the defendants appealed against conviction on the ground that the trial judge has made a crucial mistake. This research was crucial as it identified the defective manner in which the Court of Appeal failed to consider fresh evidence which had emerged since the trial or where there was a reasonable suspicion about the validity of a conviction.

The Report urged that the court be given a new role allowing it to investigate the events leading up to a conviction. The Commission also recommended that the Home Secretary's power to refer cases to Court of Appeal be removed and a new body, the Criminal Cases Review Authority should be set up to consider allegations that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. The authority should consist of lawyers and lay people, devise it own rules and procedures, it should also be able to discuss cases direct with applicants. These recommendations were largely met by the terms of the CAA1995.

Miscarriages of justice involve two types of insult to what should be legal notions of fairness (a) the wrongly imprisoned endure years of incarceration; (b) the real culprits such as the child killer in the Bridgewater case are never identified and could well go on to continue to commit such horrendous crimes. In an attempt to deal with possible miscarriages of justice, and following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1993 (Runciman), the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 established the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The CCRC has power to investigate and refer to cases to the Court of Appeal, or if appropriate the Crown Court, where they consider that there is real possibility of an appeal succeeding. Lord Justice Auld has had a pivotal role in the modern reform review of the Criminal Courts, within this report he has considered the possibility of restructuring the courts in some way; for instance, by creating a unified criminal court involving work currently undertaken by the Magistrates' Courts and the Crown Court and even the potential reworking of the division between summary and triable either way offences.

In the Narey Report in 1997, the magistrates would make the decision in accordance with the gravity of the offence and complexity of the case, and also of the effect on the defendant in terms of loss and reputation, but without any opportunity for defence and prosecution to agree the mode of trial. The labour government to f this day has consistently favoured giving the magistrates the right to make the decision, arguing that this would result in savings in excess of i??

1 million. Other significant change Proposals under consideration include the creation of an intermediate tier of jurisdiction to deal with some of the less serious offences currently categorised as either way. This could take the form of a District Judge sitting with the removal of magistrates' power of committal for sentence, including the right to jury trial for those accused of serious and complex offences.

Lord Justice Auld's changes to the court structure themselves is not no means limited. He has argued for a creation of a single criminal court supported by a unified and nationally funded administration, but within a structure which would ensure a significant element of local control and accountability at both the summary and indictable offences level.

He has put forward the idea that cases should start and finish in the court or at the jurisdictional level where they are to be tried. This would not only remove a lot of work that would be dealt with outside the criminal justice system altogether but would remove some of the lengthy and expensive cases of fraud and other financial misbehaviour from the criminal courts to a regulatory process.