Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Out of the frying pan...

The Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove reported last month in damning terms on the performance of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA).

The headnote on her Twitter page @VictimsComm says that “survivors of violent and sexual crime are being retraumatized by the CICA and left alienated and frustrated”. 

That’s a terrible indictment of an organisation that was set up to fill a gap so often left by shortcomings of the criminal courts, loopholes in the civil law and the impecuniosity of many perpetrators.

The report appears to identify unnecessary demands for information and the withholding of compensation on arbitrary grounds.  It is plainly wrong, but sadly it is nothing new.

The case that always sticks in my mind is that of a young matelot stationed at Yeovilton a number of years ago.  He was violently assaulted by a nightclub doorman during a “run ashore” in Chesterfield one Saturday evening.

Yes, he drank probably more than he should have done and might otherwise not have been quite so persistent in his attempts to persuade the dinner-suited sentinels that he should be allowed the opportunity to keep the party going.

But nothing he did could justify the actions of the bouncer who pushed the rest of his patient colleagues to one side and landed a punch that laid our young serviceman out cold on the pavement.  He cracked his head on the kerb as he landed, lost consciousness and subsequently lost interest in a promising, well paid and secure career in the Navy. 

Expert evidence from a consultant psychiatrist established that the change in our client’s psychological state was probably caused by the head injury he suffered as a result of the unlawful assault that evening.

On first application, he was awarded the princely sum of £6,000.  The only thing that was clear was that the award was insufficient.

So we appealed and eventually a new award was made.  This time it was zero.

Some bright spark got hold of the file and noted that the final chapter of the demise in our young man’s naval career was a spell of military correction at Colchester barracks. This was incorrectly viewed as a term of imprisonment equivalent to a sentence imposed by a criminal court and on that basis the applicant was deemed unfit to receive compensation.

When after approximately five years we finally dragged it to an appeal half-way up the country, a capable tribunal decided that the appropriate award was of a sum approximately 25 times the original award.  Result.

Even net of the substantial costs that were inevitably incurred in this unnecessarily long journey, our client was left with a sum of money sufficient to buy himself a house and give him a real start in a new career outside the Navy. It demonstrated to me, though, the terrible flaws in the system which were only overcome by a great deal of persistence and doggedness on the part of all the good guys.

This, unfortunately, is so often the face of “administrative justice”.  Anybody who has dealt with some of the ombudsman services which are so called created to provide Joe Public with affordable justice will understand the frustration.

There’s a sense that these bodies are there to draw in the unsuspecting hopefuls whose enthusiasm and will to live is then broken by what seems to be a mission only to protect the fund or those who might in theory be ordered to part with some money.

The route to redress is often limited, or virtually non-existent and where there is a chance to appeal, it’s a long and rocky road. As this latest inspection shows, things just get worse when they should get better.

For so many unfortunates who were persuaded to go it alone – that they didn’t need ‘expensive’ lawyers – it’s a journey out of the frying pan into the fire.

It isn’t good enough.  Well done to Baroness Newlove for carrying a torch.  I hope the consequences of her report are a much-needed reform of the CICA.

I hope also that it will foster a recognition that many of these organisations, which members of the public are encouraged to use on the ticket that they don’t need the assistance of a lawyer, are often traps for the unwary to be cheated and maltreated and left feeling that they wished they had never bothered.