Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Carloway Review and the SCCRC

[Lord Carloway's review of criminal procedure and practice following the Cadder decision and the Scottish Parliament's emergency legislation that followed it has today been published.  It can be read here.  The principal concern that I had about the emergency legislation related to the "need for finality and certainty" restriction which section 7 imposed upon the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission before a reference could be made to the High Court of Justiciary of a prima facie miscarriage of justice; and, more importantly, the gatekeeping power that it conferred on the High Court to refuse, on the basis of the "need for finality and certainty", to hear a case so referred. Lord Carloway has recommended that the restriction imposed on the SCCRC should be retained; but that the High Court gatekeeping power should be repealed. He has, however, proposed that the test to be applied in determining, after hearing a case referred by the SCCRC, whether the appeal should be allowed should be that (a) there has been a miscarriage of justice; and (b) it is in the interests of justice that the appeal be allowed.  I may say that I personally find it difficult to envisage circumstances in which a court of justice worthy of the name could find that there has been a miscarriage of justice, but that it is not in the interests of justice to rectify it.

The relevant section of the Carloway Report reads as follows (footnotes omitted):]

8.2.8 Because of the concern that Cadder might result in a flood of applications to the SCCRC and consequent references to the court, many of which, on one view, would have resulted in the quashing of the relative convictions, the 2010 Act expanded on the interests of justice element in the test to be applied by the SCCRC by providing that: "In determining whether or not it is in the interests of justice that a reference should be made, the Commission must have regard to the need for finality and certainty in the determination of criminal proceedings".The intention was to ensure that, when assessing an application, the SCCRC would be bound to take into account the dictum in Arbour Hill Prison relative to "spent" cases (i.e. those where the time limits for an appeal had expired or the appeal, or application for leave to appeal, had been refused).

8.2.9 It was perceived that there would remain a problem if, nevertheless, the SCCRC did refer "spent" cases. As already noted, the High Court would not be able to take "the interests of justice" into account. Its role would be restricted to determining whether a miscarriage of justice had occurred in the particular trial process. For this reason, the 2010 Act introduced another provision whereby:"(1) Where the Commission has referred a case to the High Court under section 194B of this Act, the High Court may, despite section 194B(1), reject the reference if the Court considers that it is not in the interests of justice that any appeal arising from the reference should proceed.(2) In determining whether or not it is in the interests of justice that any appeal arising from the reference should proceed, the High Court must have regard to the need for finality and certainty in the determination of criminal proceedings".The amendments made by the 2010 Act were designed specifically to deal with cases where an applicant to the SCCRC, who had not appealed his/her conviction or had had his/her appeal or application for leave to appeal refused, sought to raise a Cadder point, even although the law was as stated in McLean at the time of his/her appeal and/or trial.

8.2.10 The amendments made by the 2010 Act apply to all SCCRC references and not just to those raising Cadder points. They give to the High Court a gate-keeping role, relative to the interests of justice, which formerly rested only with the SCCRC. Whereas, previously, the sole concern of the High Court was whether a miscarriage of justice had occurred in the trial process, it now extends to whether the Court considers that a reference ought to have been made "in the interests of justice" having regard, potentially, to a wide range of circumstances, including the reasons why the High Court might previously have refused leave to appeal late or treated an earlier appeal as abandoned.

8.2.11 This gate-keeping role has to be performed by the High Court at a preliminary (procedural) hearing in advance of any full hearing on the merits of the reference. Although the power to reject a reference has not yet been exercised, it might be envisaged that the High Court may refuse to entertain a reference in circumstances where, if an application for a late appeal were to have been made, it would have refused to grant such an application. Equally, it might refuse a reference, if it had already refused to entertain a late appeal and there was no change in circumstances. There may be cases in which the SCCRC and the High Court could reach a different decision on where the interests of justice may lie.

 8.2.12 There are three main questions to answer: first, is it appropriate that there should be a specific requirement for the SCCRC to consider finality and certainty in deciding whether to refer and, if so, should other aspects of the "interest of justice" test be similarly specified; secondly, should the High Court's "gatekeeping role", provided for in the 2010 Act, be continued; and thirdly, are there any other ways in which finality and certainty, or the wider interests of justice, should be considered in the reference or appellate processes?SCCRC and the "interests of justice"

8.2.13 The significance of the SCCRC is that it provides, by its very nature, an exception to the principle of finality in criminal proceedings. It has that role because it is recognised that, no matter how proficient the High Court may be in rooting out miscarriages of justice in the trial process, there are some, albeit few, cases, where the High Court has failed to do this or where facts have come to light to demonstrate a miscarriage of justice after the exhaustion of rights of appeal.

8.2.14 As has been highlighted elsewhere in this report, the effect of continued litigation on victims and relatives of deceased persons, as well as those convicted, should not be underestimated. Certainty and finality remain important considerations for any criminal justice system. As a generality, it is in the interests of all of those involved in a case, whether it be victims, witnesses or accused, that it reach a conclusion. It is important, for purposes of public perception, that cases do end and are not subject to repeated appeals or changes of decision.

8.2.15 The need for finality and certainty is reflected in the SCCRC being limited to referring cases where it can be said that it is in the interests of justice for the reference to be made. This element in the reference process must involve taking into account considerations wider than those raised in the particular application such as whether, despite his/her perception that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, an applicant decided not to appeal at the time or abandoned an appeal and effectively acquiesced in his/her conviction.

8.2.16 A SCCRC reference is an extraordinary process designed to deal with exceptional cases where something has gone wrong within the criminal justice system. But the form of process acknowledges that it is not enough to demonstrate that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred at the previous trial. A broader test, having regard to the wider interests of justice, must be applied before a case can be referred. It must take into account the dictum in Arbour Hill Prison, if the evidence adduced at trial was in accordance with the law then or at the appellate stage.

8.2.17 The Review accepts that, even in the absence of the new wording introduced by the 2010 Act, the SCCRC would normally have taken the principles of finality and certainty into account when applying the interests of justice test. The Review is confident that the SCCRC will continue to do so in the immediate future. But there have been instances in the past in which the High Court has not been entirely happy that the SCCRC has fully considered this aspect of a case. Retention of the new wording will ensure that it continues to be regarded as an important factor recognising, if it were not obvious, that the possibility of a miscarriage of justice having occurred in the trial process does not, of itself, mean that it is in the interests of justice that the relative conviction be quashed. This applies in all cases where a miscarriage of justice is alleged and not just in change of law situations.

8.2.18 The Review takes the point that, by specifying this particular aspect of the "interests of justice", the legislation may be seen as detracting from the importance of other elements. In this connection, the Review notes the terms of the SCCRC information leaflet, which make it a requirement that appeal procedures be exhausted. But the Review is confident that the SCCRC will continue to take into account all the other matters which it has customarily had regard to. It would be reluctant to recommend listing, in statutory form, other aspects of the interests of justice which might be taken into account and which could outweigh the occurrence of a miscarriage of justice at trial.

The High Court's "Gate-keeping Role"

8.2.19 The Review is acutely aware of the important role that the SCCRC plays in retaining public confidence in the criminal justice system. There is a perception that miscarriages of justice sometimes occur. That perception is well founded, even if it has to be put into a proper perspective relative to the total number of convictions recorded (approximately 140,000) and appeals marked (about 2000) in a given year. The SCCRC receives about 110 applications per annum and refers about 8 per annum to the appeal court. In conviction cases the SCCRC has referred 57 out of 1,000 cases since 1999. About two thirds of references result in convictions being quashed. Of course, there may be miscarriages which are neither complained of nor referred, but the figures do provide some illustration of the extent of any problem.

8.2.20 The fact that the High Court must consider a reference from the SCCRC is important in maintaining confidence in the SCCRC and thereby in the criminal justice system as a whole. Miscarriages of justice can arise for reasons not directly connected to the trial process. This is very often the case with "fresh" evidence claims. However, some miscarriages of justice arise as a result of the way in which a case has been dealt with by a trial or appellate court. It is unusual for the SCCRC to consider a case unless and until the applicant has either unsuccessfully appealed the decision at first instance or has been refused leave to appeal. Thus by the time an application is made to the SCCRC, the applicant, his/her friends, relatives and other supporters, may perceive that the Court is less than sympathetic to his/her position. This concern would be greater if the Court, when originally rejecting the applicant's appeal or refusing to grant leave to appeal, made negative comments about the merits of the grounds of complaint. If applicants were aware that, even if his/her case were to meet the criteria for a reference by the SCCRC, the Court could refuse to consider the reference in limine for reasons other than whether there was a miscarriage of justice, this may well deter them from applying to the SCCRC in the first place. If applicants are deterred from applying to the SCCRC because of that perception, this has a strong potential for undermining the important role of the SCCRC within the criminal justice system.

8.2.21 On the other hand, SCCRC references are not, or at least ought not to be, the same as appeals made in the ordinary manner. However egregious a potential miscarriage of justice may be, the SCCRC cannot refer the case to the High Court unless they also believe it would be in the interests of justice to do so. If the Court were to be allowed to consider the interests of justice test, all that it would be doing would be applying part of the same statutory test as that laid down by Parliament for making a reference in the first place. Of course, if the SCCRC apply the test appropriately, the Court should rarely have any basis upon which to reject a case on this ground. But if it is for the SCCRC to consider whether it is in the interests of justice to refer a case, then logically it may also be appropriate for the Court to consider such a test at least when determining the appeal. It is countered that, if the SCCRC does not appropriately consider the interests of justice, the Crown could elect to "judicially review" the reference. But introducing a civil process into this arena, and one involving an Outer House judge at least initially, may be seen as unnecessarily elaborate.

8.2.22 The case for maintaining a gatekeeping role for the High Court would have greater force if there were a perception that the SCCRC had a significant track record of frivolous or inappropriate references and it were thought that some further measure was required to bring greater discipline to their activities. The Review is content to note that there has been no suggestion from any source, nor is there any other reason to suppose, that this is the case. Indeed, it seems to be widely accepted that, despite the occasional lapse, the SCCRC has been a conspicuous success in discharging its duties conscientiously and responsibly.

8.2.23 The "flood" of referred cases that was feared following Cadder has not materialised. The Review understands that, in the period from the Cadder decision in October 2010 up until July 2011, there were thirty-eight applications to the SCCRC citing Cadder grounds. Added to fourteen similar applications made before Cadder was finally determined, this makes a total of fifty-two applications. Of these fifty-two applications, at least twenty-four have been fully processed by the SCCRC and none have been referred to the Court. It may be that a proportion of the remaining twenty-eight cases may result in references, but this cannot be said to be a deluge. The Review notes that more references may arise following Ambrose. However, the outcome of that case would suggest that they will be very few in number.

8.2.24 In all these circumstances, it is inappropriate for the Appeal Court to have a gate-keeping role in relation to references from the SCCRC because of the effect which such a role could have relative to the function committed by Parliament to the SCCRC. That new provision of the 1995 Act ought to be repealed.

References to the High Court
 8.2.25 In references, there are wider considerations than exist in an ordinary appeal process, when the Court is generally only reviewing the proceedings in the trial court, although fresh evidence may also have an impact. By the time a reference is made, there may also have been a previous conscious decision by an applicant not to appeal, or not to do so on particular grounds. He/she may have abandoned an appeal or expressly departed from one or more grounds. There may have been a decision to refuse an applicant leave to appeal late either because of the absence of any arguable grounds or on the merits of the application as framed. In a reference, it may transpire that there is "fresh" evidence on both sides. Rather than continuing the process by, for example, ordering a re-trial, it may be more appropriate for the Court to be able to bring matters to a conclusion in a reference by considering, in whatever order it deems appropriate in the particular case, but after a final hearing, whether: (a) there has been a miscarriage of justice in the trial process; and (b) it is also in the interests of justice that the appeal be allowed. The law might thereby be advanced in so far as the Court can determine in appropriate cases what wider considerations of justice might result in a conviction being sustained, notwithstanding the finding of a material miscarriage in the original trial or appeal proceedings. Such a determination may assist the SCCRC when considering the interests of justice in subsequent applications.

[A related article in Scottish lawyers' magazine The Firm headlined  "Carloway Review and Pan Am 103: joining the dots" can be read here.]


  1. Lord Carloway argues:

    "...if it is for the SCCRC to consider whether it is in the interests of justice to refer a case, then logically it may also be appropriate for the Court to consider such a test at least when determining the appeal."

    That doesn't necessarily follow. I always thought of the interests-of-justice test in relation to, or at least primarily in relation to, the Commission's view of probabilities, rather than the desirability or otherwise of sustaining an unfair verdict. It is the latter that he is talking about in relation to the Court's proposed new test.

    If the Commission thought there might have been a miscarriage of justice, it might still be wrong to refer if it considered that likelihood low. That is sensible, because otherwise there is no restriction on the Commission wasting the Court's time on unlikely cases.

    If that is what was envisaged by legislators establishing the SCCRC, it is hard to see the logic of Lord Carloway's argument.

  2. RB: "I may say that I personally find it difficult to envisage circumstances in which a court of justice worthy of the name could find that there has been a miscarriage of justice, but that it is not in the interests of justice to rectify it."

    I am quite sure that I would be unable to find a single friend who could help, but obviously it is not a matter of course.

    Sure, there can be a problem with resources.
    We may have to filter, and say no to, or delay, some cases. As too many hopefuls, guilty or not, may try to get a second chance. I understand that this was the fear from the "Cadder"-case outcome, but that it did not appear to be justified.

    Does that mean that the emergency-legislation is to deal with a potential emergency only? A restriction in civil rights in advance, for the reason that it may be a problem?

    If understood correctly, why not wait with the legislation til the problem is there?

    I looked up "Finality" in wiki.
    It ended with:
    The importance of finality is the source of the concept of "res judicata" - that the decisions of one court are settled law, and may not be retried in another case brought in a different court.

    I suppose that is what was written in
    8.2.2 In the Irish Supreme Court case of A v The Governor of Arbour Hill Prison, Murray CJ neatly set out the limit in the following terms [1]:"….in a criminal prosecution where the State relies in good faith on a statute in force at the time and the accused does not seek to impugn the bringing or conduct of the prosecution, on any grounds that may in law be open to him or her, including the constitutionality of the statute, before the case reaches finality, on appeal or otherwise, then the final decision in the case must be deemed to be and to remain lawful notwithstanding any subsequent ruling that the statute, or a provision of it, is unconstitutional".

    Well hidden - as usual in law texts - is the word "lawful". "...deemed to be and to remain lawful...", unless the laws, or they way were used were unconstitutional.

    "So, valid until maybe later determined not to be, on a constitutional basis."

    I always thought it was like this:
    There is a court and a verdict. After this, appeals. Then we have a SCCRC, which can investigate cases they find worthy (and as said, as system has to be made if there are more than possible).

    Then they may decide to refer it back to court.

    Naturally the courts should not have a say here. I recall we already discussed this, but I forgot why anyone would think something else (apart of course from those who'd like to block an appeal).

    No need for time limits, if there were resources. Otherwise it could be a filtering criteria.

    From my own work I know that what may appear simple to laymen may not be simple at all for the professional who has to do the work. And the pro is right - most of the time. :-)
    There's probably a good reason for the words.

  3. As a lay person when it comes to all things legal I think it is still possible to understand why the SCCRC was first set up and what its remit was. For me the most important part was that it was originally designed to work free of interference from the political and judicial establishments. It was to be independent and was trusted via an act of Parliament to impartially review all cases it took on. What MacAskill has brought in destroys this completely and without a doubt kills, stone dead, the SCCRC's original remit. For MacAskill has ensured that the political and judicial establishments will do what they like and no independent public body will be permitted to get in their way.

    Justice, it is clear, is not on our Justice Secretary's agenda. Why doesn't he just dismantle the SCCRC and be done with it and at least be honest about his aim, which is, to remove powers that allow anyone to say any Scottish Court ever gets anything wrong and that way(sick bucket please) "restore the integrity of the Scottish Justice System"?