Miscarriage-of-justice cash slashed by £5m

Last updated at 12:29 19 April 2006

Compensation payments to people wrongly convicted of crimes are to be slashed by a total of £5 million a year, Home Secretary Charles Clarke said today.

Individual awards will be capped at £500,000 - the same as the maximum amount paid to victims of crime - compared with the previous highest payout of £2.1 million.

Mr Clarke announced a highly significant ministerial review of the legal test currently used by the Court of Appeal to quash criminal convictions.

It will examine to what extent an error in the trial process necessarily leads to a miscarriage of justice, said a Home Office spokesman.

Mr Clarke described the move as an "urgent review" which could lead to a change in the law.

A discretionary compensation scheme set up by former home secretary Douglas Hurd in 1985 will be scrapped immediately, Mr Clarke said. That scheme paid out £2 million a year.

A statutory scheme which currently pays out £6 million a year will remain in force but a number of new limitations will be placed on claimants.

Mr Clarke said he planned to bring in new laws so that compensation could be reduced to zero because of previous criminal convictions or other conduct by the applicant.

Scrapping the discretionary scheme means people who have been wrongly convicted will not be able to apply for compensation if their cases have been quashed while going through the normal appeal process.

Instead they will have to sue for compensation through the civil courts.

Mr Clarke said: "The changes I have announced today will create a fairer, simpler and speedier system for compensating miscarriages of justice.

"I am scrapping the discretionary scheme which has become increasingly anomalous and I do not believe that this can continue to be justified.

"These changes will save more than £5 million a year which we will plough back into improving criminal justice and support for victims of crime."

On the review of the Court of Appeal test, Mr Clarke said: "I have embarked on an urgent review, with the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General, of the statutory test the Court of Appeal must use in deciding whether to quash a conviction.

"I propose to examine whether and if so to what extent an error in the trial process necessarily means a miscarriage of justice.

"I will consult upon the results of this review as soon as possible.

"If a change in the law is needed, we will propose it."

A review of this kind was previously recommended by Lord Justice Auld.

Compensation has increased in recent years

Average final awards for wrongful conviction have increased from about £170,000 in 2003-4 to more than £250,000 in 2005-6, according to Home Office figures. The highest award was £2.1 million.

In comparison the average award to a victim of crime is just £5,000.

Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongly imprisoned for an IRA bomb in 1974, said he was "absolutely horrified" by the plans set out by the Home Secretary.

"If Charles Clarke wants to make cuts, then let him cut the pensions of the forensic scientists, the police officers, who have lied or contaminated or fabricated evidence that sent these innocent people to prison," he told BBC News 24.

"You cut the pension of those people, I am sure you would save more than £5 million a year."

He said victims of crime should be compensated on equal terms with victims of miscarriage of justice.

The Guildford Four, whose sentences were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1989, walked out of prison with their lives ruined and in "tatters", he said.

He said his father Giuseppe had been murdered through wilful neglect in prison.

He was still battling with the Home Office to get treatment for the trauma he suffered.

"You are sending people into a living hell and it is not for a day, it is forever," he said.

"What Charles Clarke is talking about is probably a penny-pinching vote-catching exercise. People are still suffering the trauma from 1974 and we have had no help at all, no medical help at all.

"Is Charles Clarke going to automatically make it a right for the victims of miscarriage of justice to have the same rights to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, for shock and for all sorts of mental problems?

"Is he going to come out with the statement saying that he is going to put it in line with the victims of crime? Don't forget, we were the victims of crime."

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