The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the new government watchdog on miscarriages of justice, faces an initial avalanche of cases amid a shortfall in fully trained staff, an ongoing dispute with the Home Office over funding and crucial computer systems not yet in place.
The disclosures came as the commission began work on the 251 cases it has received in its first week of operation, and as Sir Frederick Crawford, its chairman, broke the lengthy silence since his appointment last year to hold his first press conference.
The occasion was not, however, marked by any conclusions Sir Frederick - a former university administrator and prominent Freemason with no experience of criminal justice - may have reached about the state of the system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the commission's remit. With his administrator's hat firmly in place, he said: "My role is to set up the commission and get it working effectively and efficiently and, as far as finances are concerned, as economically as possible". It was clear yesterday that reliance is going to be placed on the 14- strong Birmingham-based body's better-known members, such as Karamjit Singh, a former Police Complaints Authority member who will serve full- time, to help present its human face and build public confidence. Under intense questioning about his membership of the Freemasons, Sir Frederick insisted that no question of conflict of interest would arise because he would not be undertaking casework. It was also apparent that he envisages little alternative to using the police to investigate themselves when police misconduct or failure is alleged. "There may be alternative ways of producing the same result but it is very difficult to find the necessary expertise and access," he told the news conference in Birmingham. But members emphasised yesterday that in contrast to the secretive former Home Office Criminal Cases Unit, or C3, the commission - which has the power to refer suspected miscarriages back to the appeal courts - would be open about its work. That new openness took the form yesterday of the release of a memorandum to the Commons home affairs select committee about the establishment and operation of the new body. The contents revealed, however, that the much- awaited commission may become the target for complaints about delay. Concerns about the impact of the influx of cases - likely to be between 500 and 750 in the first year - are such that the paper asks for "suspension of judgement . …