The sleight of hand with which the government delivered its latest insult to victims of miscarriages of justice illustrated its growing disregard for the presumption of innocence.
It hoped to enforce its cap on compensation to those wrongly jailed by persuading the public the policy was directly related to low pay-outs to victims of crime.
It isn’t, of course, and the illusion failed to disguise the real motivation: to save cash.
Reporting of the move was widely hostile, although strangely muted in the Welsh press even though miscarriages of justice have troubled our society greatly in the past.
The policy was one of those enforced immediately, although its presentation may still return to bite the government on the behind.
Welsh injustice victim Michael O’Brien was among those who did not take kindly to the choice of words used by Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart on an ITV news bulletin.
O’Brien, who spent 11 years in the slammer for a Cardiff murder he did not commit, has now taken legal advice and is considering suing Mactaggart.
The government erected its own petard for this one before hoisting itself upon it – although it will be the victims who will be strung out in the long run.
Early reports, no doubt encouraged by Home Office spin, presented the idea of capping pay-outs to innocent ex-prisoners at £500,000 as a way of benefiting victims of crime. It would save, explained one national newspaper, “an estimated £5m a year which the government said would be ploughed back into support for victims of crime”. The new system would be “fairer”, (then)Home Secretary Charles Clarke muttered through the thick disguise of his kindly beard.
It quickly became apparent that was not the case. The money would not simply be diverted to victims of muggings, burglary and rape.
And anyway why should some victims be used to compensate others? As O’Brien told the media the government was attempting to play off one group of victims against another.
The Home Office was plainly making invalid comparisons and dumping the blame for low pay-outs to victims of crime on the wrong people.
Much was made of the levels of pay-outs to miscarriages of justice.
O’Brien’s is still to be settled in the courts after he turned down an offer of around £700,000.
It sounds a lot and would indeed be a tidy wedge if O’Brien had won it on the lottery after laying down £1 for a ticket.
But he gave up a lot more than that.
The pay-out included cash for loss of earnings – while in jail and in the future due to illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder – as well as cash for non-pecuniary loss.
This listed £125,000 for loss of liberty (about £11,000 for every year spent in jail) and £30,000 for loss of family life, including the twin traumas of learning from inside a cell of the deaths of his baby daughter and his step-father, and missing out on the first decade of his son’s life.
The compensation assessor also took about £37,000 off O’Brien for living expenses saved in jail – the so-called ‘bed and board’ charge. That is due to be contested at the House of Lords.
David Davis has said: “Both victims of crime and those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice should be compensated in a fair fashion that reflects the impact of their suffering. In the case of a miscarriage, the need is overwhelming because it is the state that instigated proceedings in the first place.”
The words of a Tory shadow home secretary: it’s strange the places we now have to go for some sanity!
I’ve no doubt that any criminal justice system, no matter how neatly created, would through up injustices.
But while the state appears to feel that these people and the wrong done to them really does not matter, their number will not be reduced. It will grow.
O’Brien knows the pain caused by the Home Office’s media-catching statements.
He still gets called ‘criminal’ by some on the street. The government’s appalling attitude to him and others like him only reinforces that prejudice.
: First published The Big Issue Cymru, May 8, 2006