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Thursday, April 20, 2006 

Tough on crime, tough on the victims of others crime.

Angela Cannings, who has had a compensation claim blocked for the 18 months she spent in prison after being convicted for killing her two children, as she was cleared not due to newly discovered facts, but because the scientific evidence given was discredited. The man who gave that evidence, Sir Roy Meadow, has since been reinstated on the medical register and had the general medical council's ruling that he had been guilty of serious professional misconduct for providing erroneous evidence overturned. The GMC is to appeal.

You sometimes have to wonder whether New Labour is actually a lot more organised and coherent in its thinking than it seems to be. Alongside today's rushed announcements regarding violent offenders, following the murder of Mary-Ann Leneghan and John Monckton among others by men who had been released from prison on probation, Charles "No Trousers" Clarke announced that the maximum amount of money available to victims of miscarriages of justice is to be capped, and that the Home Office is considering introducing the "not proven" verdict of the Scottish system into the English legal system. Perhaps realising that with the ever screaming tabloids demanding inexorable crackdowns, with yet more summary justice and ASBOs likely to be introduced also, that capping the amount of money to those who are wrongly jailed is going to make sense. After all, it's much more likely that more innocent people will be found guilty in this climate.

The package of changes to the compensation scheme for victims of miscarriages of justice will save about £5m a year out of a total annual bill of £8m. Some will have immediate effect. The government will no longer pay compensation above what is required by international obligations and so has now closed its discretionary payment scheme.

In one case under the discretionary scheme cited by Mr Clarke, a man convicted of smuggling offences for which he was fined and ordered to pay costs was awarded a seven-figure sum even though he had not even been to prison.

The statutory scheme paying out the minimum required by international obligations will continue and claimants will have the right to sue in the civil courts for compensation. Time limits are to be introduced for all applications.

The average time taken to settle cases has now reached more than three years, with five cases having taken more than 10 years to resolve.

Legislation

Mr Clarke is to introduce legislation capping the maximum award at £500,000 under the scheme, plus compensation for loss of earnings. Payments have increased sharply in recent years, with the average now more than £250,000 and with more than 10% paid in legal fees. In one unidentified case more than £2.1m was paid out. A limit is also to be placed on the amount of legal aid available in such cases. Earnings compensation will be limited to one and half times gross average industrial earnings.

Deductions

The government will further limit the compensation payments made by giving an independent assessor the power to make deductions to take account of other convictions and the defendant's behaviour during the trial. In exceptional cases the compensation could be reduced to nil because of criminal convictions or the defendant's failure to be helpful in court.

The whole thing seems to have a scrooge mentality surrounded by it, as pointed out in the Guardian leader. Admittedly, it is difficult to put a price on the ruining of a life, the years spent in prison wrongly and the effects on the convicted's family and friends. Even so, the government's capping of the rate at £500,000 doesn't seem very high when someone has spent 15 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit. As for the deductions part, apparently having a criminal record may now mean that someone wrongly convicted of another crime may well get zilch. The failure to be "helpful" in court also seems plainly to be an attempt to stop those who have always maintained their innocence from receiving compensation. There are now men and women in prison who have served their life sentences, yet cannot be released from prison on parole because they show no remorse for their crimes, because they continue to claim to be innocent and refuse to give in to a system that demands they repent for crimes they didn't commit. This new policy seems to be a furthering of that.

In an extraordinary piece of doublespeak, Clarke said this of the proposed reforms:
"The changes I have announced today will create a fairer, simpler and speedier system for compensating miscarriages of justice."

Fairer in that any award will capped at a certain amount, simpler in that the system will be able to turn down compensation awards for more reasons, and speedier in doing just that. Yes, Charles's logic is coming on leaps and bounds.

Then there's the proposals to tackle the failings of the probation service in a tiny few but high profile cases.

The orders could ban high-risk offenders from certain locations and impose a range of other conditions, although these do not include curfews. Breaking the orders could lead to up to five years in jail, Mr Clarke told MPs.

A lot of probation orders already do ban high-risk offenders from certain locations. In the case of Damien Hanson, who murdered John Monckton, he was banned from the area from which he was meant to report. This was not to do with inadequacy of the probation system, but the individual failings of some of the officers themselves. Erwin James writes today that two men he knows are also under orders which they have to break to follow. It seems that these orders are written by different people who then don't bother to check if their plans for the offender overlap. Clarke himself admits that the real problem is:
"no risk can ever be eliminated".

And that is the problem. We can't lock violent offenders right up until their sentence is over and then dump them back out on the street. That's even more dangerous than the current scheme which is in place, yet that is of course the solution which the tabloids and Victor Bates, husband of a woman shot dead by a man out on probation propose. As the head of the probation service points out, 95% of those released on parole do not reoffend. Of those that do reoffend, the offence is much more likely to be something such as drug possession or shoplifting than another violent offence.

Clarke's plans then seems obvious: be tough on crime, tough on those who are being released, and tough on those who were innocent in the first place. Whatever happened to being tough on the causes of crime? Oh, that was Gordon Brown's slogan. That explains it.

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