Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 3rd March 2008.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs 3:30 pm, 3rd March 2008

In this group of amendments, we move on to the question of miscarriages of justice and compensation for miscarriages of justice currently available under the previous Act. That Act permits an independent assessor to assess what the damages or compensation should be. For many years, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, with all his enormous experience of damages litigation, has been the independent assessor. A miscarriage of justice is a wrong inflicted by the state for which the state is directly liable, for which it has accepted responsibility and for which it has an obligation under international law to provide compensation. That is in Article 14.6 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It so happens that when I was a pupil barrister far too many years ago, in the very first murder case that I was ever involved in, I was asked by my pupil master to make an application to take a case out of the list, which I did. Fifteen years later, by which time I was a Queen's Counsel, I represented that defendant on his appeal. It was sent back to the Court of Appeal because of something very unfortunate that had been discovered. The forensic scientific evidence had been cooked up by a scientist from the Midlands. A whole series of appeals followed my appeal as a result of what he had done. I remember vividly talking to the governor at Leeds prison, who told me that my client would have been released many years before if only he had admitted what he had done. However, he had not admitted it: he had been a nuisance; he had been on the roof throwing slates; and he had protested for the whole of that time. Although in those days a life sentence meant that on average a person served 12 years, 15 years had gone by and he was completely innocent.

In the Bill, the Government are proposing to limit the rights to compensation granted to people such as that former client of mine by imposing a number of restrictions: he should have only two years from the date of the successful appeal to bring an application for compensation, no matter what sort of state he is in; the amount of compensation should be limited to £500,000—I have to tell your Lordships that where a person has been held in custody for very lengthy periods, generally speaking the compensation is considerably in excess of that—and his claim for loss of earnings should be limited to 1.5 times the median annual gross earnings of people throughout the country. Therefore, in this clause the state is seeking to impose an artificial limit on its own liability.

In order to justify that, when the Bill was put forward the Ministry of Justice said in its press release that the intention was to,

"bring compensation for those wrongly convicted into line with that paid to victims of crime".

It refers to victims of crime because compensation for victims of crime has now been limited to a maximum of £500,000, regardless of the circumstances. But of course there is absolutely no parity between a person who is a victim of crime caused by a criminal who could—at least, in theory—be sued in the civil courts and a person who is subjected to miscarriages of justice caused by agents of the state. There is no reason at all to equate the two. To suggest that there is some sort of rational connection between the level of compensation paid to a victim of crime and that paid to someone who is subject to a miscarriage of justice is, in my submission, quite wrong; it is an entirely different situation. Therefore, the amendments in this group seek to remove the artificial limits on the amount of compensation that the independent assessor can award.

Your Lordships are aware of the cases of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark, which demonstrate that full financial compensation is not in itself enough to enable people to rebuild their lives after having been wrongfully convicted and possibly having suffered an extremely long period of imprisonment. Those who are wrongfully convicted frequently suffer severe psychiatric injury in the form of irreversible personality damage or post-traumatic stress disorder. They suffer loss of their home and other assets, serious damage to family relationships, loss of income while in prison and often permanent incapacity to earn.

We submit that these limitations on compensation for victims of miscarriage of justice are now being imposed for a purely financial reason—in order to limit the amount of money that the Government have to pay. To give the Committee some idea of how many people are involved, I should say that I think that last year some 35 cases were sent by the Criminal Cases Review Commission to the Court of Appeal, 70 per cent of which were allowed. We are talking about 20 to 30 people a year where it is established that there has been, for one reason or another, a serious miscarriage of justice. A person in that position should be put as nearly as possible in the position in which he or she would have been had there been no injustice. That is the principle that we seek, through these amendments, to uphold. I beg to move.