Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I understand why it has been decided that the compensation for particular injuries should be different as between the Northern Ireland scheme and that for the rest of the United Kingdom, but can the Minister justify that?

Mr. Browne: Governments have traditionally taken a different attitude to compensation in Northern Ireland—and by ''traditionally'', I mean during the past 30 years. For example, property damage in Northern Ireland is compensated for through an ex gratia payment scheme. Over the past 30 years there have been obvious reasons for that; if that scheme had not been in place, town centres that were destroyed could not have been rebuilt, because the affected businesses would not have been able to get insurance.

In addition to that, the people of Northern Ireland have suffered great victimisation, injuries and terrible trauma during that period, and successive

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Governments have held the view that we should be there for them. With hindsight, it could be claimed that the compensation that victims in Northern Ireland traditionally received was miserly. As the Minister with responsibility for victims in Northern Ireland, I sometimes hear that from them. Women who have been widows for 30 years reflect on the sums that they received 30 years ago, and they think, ''That's all I got for the loss of my husband''—and the judges sometimes said to them that that figure had been decided upon on the basis that that they were young women, and that they would remarry.

Attitudes have changed, and people have reflected further, so that sometimes such awards—even if they seemed generous, in comparative terms, at the time—look miserly now. I do not know the jurisprudential or judicial history, but I suspect that that approach crept into common law settlements. Over time there may well have been another reason—that in Northern Ireland, jury trials lasted longer than in Great Britain. Juries, notoriously, are more generous, which is why claimants prefer them to judges sitting on their own.

Over the years, a combination of that attitude in jurisprudence and the survival of jury trials in Northern Ireland created a disparity. That is the environment in which we seek to make the changes; it is only appropriate and fair to the people of Northern Ireland that we reflect that difference. All hon. Members share the hope that Northern Ireland will move to a more normal society in time. We are at the beginning of that process; I accept that there are still great difficulties, but we are making progress. In due course, as part of that normalisation there will be an equivalence and a settling of those differences, but this is not the opportunity to make such changes. A radically different scheme should reflect differences in the level of settlement. They are not dramatic in real terms but they are different, and Northern Ireland awards tend to be higher.

With appeals, the other major change for Northern Ireland is contained in article 7, which provides that the scheme will arrange for appeals to be determined by adjudicators appointed by the Secretary of State. That will lead to the introduction of an appeals panel similar to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel in Great Britain.

The focus of the opposition to the proposed reform lies in the fact that under existing arrangements there is a right of appeal to the courts. Both that change and the introduction of a more straightforward system of assessing compensation militate against the continued need for legal intervention in the process of claiming compensation. The genus of a tariff scheme provides considerable scope for many claims to be progressed by the applicant without any intervention. As a result, the statute will no longer feature a right to have legal costs paid by the scheme in successful cases, as it does now.

That is in line with the practice in Great Britain, where claims have been successfully pursued under similar tariff systems for almost six years without the payment of legal costs. I do not think that legal costs

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were ever paid in Great Britain; some people may have qualified for legal aid under the green form scheme of legal advice and assistance, but as I recollect, if the claim was settled with a payment the legal aid scheme was reimbursed from the settlement. That was the case when I practised law as a solicitor in Scotland. The position was different in Northern Ireland, where legal costs were paid, but they will not be paid now because the scheme has been greatly simplified.

Given the reliance on legal assistance in Northern Ireland until now, the draft order makes provision in article 11 for the Secretary of State to designate a body to provide advice, support and assistance to persons seeking compensation under the proposed new arrangements. The intention is that Victim Support Northern Ireland should fulfil that role, with financial resources provided by the Government. A service delivery agreement will be drawn up, which will set out the level of service to be provided. It is envisaged that most applicants will either apply directly to the compensation agency, much as anyone would do for any other public service such as social security benefits and so on, or seek help and guidance from advice workers from Victim Support, who will be specially recruited and trained for the purpose.

Article 5 provides that the Secretary of State will determine awards of compensation. In practice, administrative arrangements for the determination of awards will remain largely unchanged, with the service delivery continuing in the hands of the compensation agency. What will change, however, are the procedures necessary to determine an award with the tariff process being driven by the agency instead of through the applicant's solicitors. At present, in my ministerial capacity, I receive complaints from hon. Members about the length of time that it takes for claims to be processed. Often, although not always, it is delay that causes victims stress. Because of my background I know my way around this sort of scheme, and when I make inquiries I often discover that correspondence to the applicant's solicitor has been outstanding for some months with no answer. The proposal is that the agency will drive the process, rather than its being driven by an external third party, even though that party may be a representative of the victim.

Lady Hermon: The Minister spoke about lawyers and solicitors, and he will recall that in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee the point was made that the Law Society of Northern Ireland felt that the Minister had not consulted it during the process of drafting the order. I know that the Minister intended to consult it, so will he enlighten the Committee about the outcome of that consultation?

Mr. Browne: I shall deal with consultation both generally and specifically towards the end, because it is an important aspect. There is a view abroad that if the Government consult on a mature scheme, as this was when it was published, and are not persuaded by arguments for change, the consultation has been a sham. That is not the case. The consultation has been robust, and I have defended the position and policy not only in this House on more than one occasion, but in a meeting with the Law Society of Northern Ireland. It gave as good as it got, and had some strong

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arguments that I recognised and discussed. However, it did not persuade me that we should not adhere to the principle of the tariff, to which it objects, or try to deliver on the Bloomfield recommendations as we have done.

We listened to what the Law Society had to say, and we will continue to engage with it. Its representatives reassured me that lawyers were not making money out of the work—despite my calculation that of the £45 million paid out last year, £5 million went to the legal profession—and that its motivation and its interest in the scheme was not linked to the fees. The society has an important contribution to make to the discussion, but my view, as I said in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and as is reflected in the report by the Ad Hoc Committee on criminal injuries compensation, is that the lawyers have had a disproportionate effect on everyone else's thinking in the debate. I am happy to engage with them, and we have listened to their comments—but just because they are lawyers, we do not have to agree with them. I am a lawyer myself, and I have been happy both to consult them and to explain why we do not think that they are right.

As the process will be agency led, improvements can be expected in the time taken to settle claims and the inconvenience that a victim must experience before a decision is made. That will be a significant bonus for victims, particularly those who have experienced the trauma that violent crime generates. Article 5 also states that the scheme may include provision for compensation to be paid, subject to conditions. The draft scheme details the conditions, but it is safe to say in the parameters of today's debate that eligibility for compensation has been extended as a result of recommendations made by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, and the improvements are in all cases to the advantage of individual victims. If we reach the debate about the scheme—if the Secretary of State is allowed the power to make the order—I will have a significant amount to say about those advantages, some of which are ground-breaking and significantly helpful to individual victims.

Article 6 continues the theme of moving towards parity with the arrangements in Great Britain. It states:

    ''The Scheme shall include provision for the review . . . of any decision'',

which will mean that many cases that currently end up in the court system and are then settled on the steps of the court without a hearing will reach resolution before leaving the jurisdiction of the agency. It provides a check against the validity of decisions before cases reach full appeal stage, and I have already dealt with the arrangements for appeal, which are outlined in article 7.

The draft order also sets out arrangements for the approval of the statutory scheme and further alterations to that scheme. Those provisions are contained in articles 9 and 10. As I said earlier, the Secretary of State cannot make the scheme without the draft being approved by both Houses. Similarly, future alterations to the tariff and any other major changes as set out in article 10 are subject to the affirmative

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resolution procedure. However, it is proposed that other minor alterations to the scheme should be capable of being made without the need for a full debate, so it is proposed that the procedure for such alterations should be by negative resolution.

 
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Prepared 11 March 2002