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 Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:30 pm, 3rd March 2008

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for the way in which he has introduced the debate. The changes were foreshadowed in a Written Statement made by my right honourable friend the then Home Secretary in April 2006 and formed part of wider changes and reforms to the system for compensation paid for miscarriages of justice. As my right honourable friend then said, the purpose of those reforms was,

"to modernise and simplify the system, and to bring about a better balance with the treatment of victims of crime".—[Hansard, Commons, 19/4/06; col. 15WS.]

I shall go through each amendment one by one, because they deal with some specific and separate matters. Amendment No. 120 would extend from two years to six years the proposed time limit for making a claim for compensation in relation to a miscarriage of justice. Currently, compensation applications can be made many years after a conviction has been reversed as there is no time limit. That means that important documents may not be available, thus making it very difficult to make proper and fair decisions about whether, beyond reasonable doubt, there has been a miscarriage of justice, as the law requires. Clause 111(3), therefore, introduces a time limit for making an application for compensation, of two years from the reversing of the conviction or a pardon being granted. I should stress that the time limit applies from the date that the conviction is quashed or the date of acquittal at retrial and not the actual date of conviction. Two years is also the time limit for making an application for criminal injuries compensation.

Clearly, there may be exceptional circumstances which could delay an application. In exceptional circumstances, therefore, the clause provides that an application made outside the two-year limit may be regarded as having been made in time. Exceptional circumstances in this context might include the physical or mental incapacity of the applicant. While every application would be considered on its own facts, we do not expect mere ignorance of the existence of the compensation scheme to be regarded as an exceptional circumstance. Therefore, we think that the two-year time limit, with the possibility of an extension in exceptional circumstances, is entirely reasonable. The application form is fairly straightforward. It has a maximum of 10 pages. In normal circumstances, there is no reason why it could not be completed within the two-year period.

On Amendment No. 121, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is concerned about the proposed £500,000 limit. He is right to say that there is no limit on the amount of compensation payable for a miscarriage of justice at the moment. He is also right to say that in recent years a number of awards have exceeded £1 million. The highest ever award was more than £2 million. I know that the noble Lord says that there is no logic in making comparisons between the amounts payable for miscarriage of justice and the amounts paid for compensation of victims of violent crime. The Government do not agree. Compensation for victims of violent crime is currently capped at £500,000, no matter what the severity of the injury or its long-term nature. That scheme is probably one of the most generous in the world, in any case.

It is not unreasonable to say that there should be a limit for miscarriages of justice. I know that the noble Lord says that a miscarriage of justice is always the fault of the state and therefore full reparation should be made. Of course, in some cases, miscarriages of justice occur because of mistakes, or even misconduct, by the prosecuting authorities. It is interesting that the Criminal Cases Review Commission commented in its annual report that some of the themes which led to a miscarriage of justice in past years were becoming less common. For instance, the commission says that, for its cases decided last year, only one was dominated by non-disclosure and none involved forced confessions post-dating the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Convictions may be quashed where no fault could be attached to the prosecuting authorities—perhaps where the defence failed to adduce evidence or a witness lied.

I have, of course, noted the comments of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report, and its recommendation that we should not have a cap. We do not agree, which is why we have proposed the cap on compensation for miscarriages of justice at £500,000. However, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas—and while we are not ready to remove the cap completely—I can tell him that we propose to introduce an amendment on Report to increase the maximum compensation payable, where the person has been in prison for more than 10 years, to £1 million. I hope that that goes some way to meeting the particular issue that the noble Lord raised and that, on that basis, he would be prepared to withdraw his amendment.