Draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2002

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Lady Hermon: The Minister has touched on the post-traumatic stress of those, for example, in the fire brigade or the new Police Service of Northern Ireland who rescue victims of—heaven forbid—another bomb blast. Can he confirm that, although the bomb might

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have already exploded, the words ''exceptional danger'' would not exclude such officers and firemen from compensation, and that they would be entitled to it under this scheme? The terms in which the scheme is written are rather narrow.

Mr. Browne: I do not think that I can give the hon. Lady that confirmation. She will understand that the scheme is a significant extension from the status quo, and that it has consequences for a large number of people. She will know from her constituency experience and her knowledge of Northern Ireland that the issue has greatly aggrieved and troubled many people there.

I felt it important and appropriate to put limits on the extension of the provisions, which covers the psychological damage of people who are secondary victims. Common law is moving in that direction in any event—it is constantly being redefined. The limits that have been suggested are appropriate in respect of those who are professionally involved in such incidents, bearing in mind the fact that there are, for example, significant-other supports for people asked to do that work in the context of their employment. As the hon. Lady will hear later, I shall continue to keep the scheme under review. With experience, it might be appropriate to look again at some of its provisions.

The trite answer would be to say to the hon. Lady that ''exceptional danger'' will depend on the individual circumstances of the case. I do not seek to rule out a set of circumstances such as she described. Equally, however, I am not in a position to reassure her that all circumstances involving unexploded devices will be consistent with the phrase ''exceptional danger''. I am sure that the hon. Lady understands why I am not prepared to do that. I have tried to be as helpful to her as I can without transgressing the rule that I cannot stand here and try to define a phrase that might well, in Northern Ireland, come to have a life of its own.

Retrospective provision for child sex abuse cases is an important aspect of the scheme, and a development of which I, as a Minister, am particularly proud because it will benefit several people who have been significantly disadvantaged under the status quo. It was reported in the review led by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield that the statutory time limit currently in place under the 1988 order—which allows a maximum of three years to make a claim, from the age of 18 in cases of childhood injury, with no flexibility or room for discretion—had led to unfairness and inequity in the distribution of compensation. The cases in question involved adults who had been the victims of sexual offences in childhood and who, for very understandable reasons, had not pursued the crimes committed against them until they were over the age of 21. By that stage, they were unable to claim compensation.

As has already been described, the flexible time limits and new scheme shall rectify that problem for the future, but there remain the victims of incidents that have already happened, or that will happen before the new scheme is introduced—although it is hoped that it will be introduced at the beginning of May. The new dispensation will not help them. As a result,

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because of the overwhelming moral argument supporting their cases, the Government have taken the enormous unprecedented step of attaching to the new scheme a provision to allow those unfortunate victims of heinous crimes who have found themselves on the wrong side of legislative time limits a second chance to access compensation for their injuries.

That provision will mean that an adult who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and who has not been able to pursue a successful claim because they were over 21 before being in a position to do so, can now apply for compensation, whether for the first time or because a claim made under the current scheme was refused because they were outside the statutory time limit. It will not permit applications that have already been refused compensation for any other reason—for example, because of the provisions of the 1977 or the 1988 order, which placed certain restrictions on awards made to a victim living in the same household as the perpetrator. The retrospective lifting of the mandatory time limit is an important change, which will rectify an inequity in the previous legislation for many people.

Another significant change to eligibility conditions in the proposed new scheme will allow the more equitable treatment of claims from victims with a record of criminal convictions. Under the current arrangements, awards can be reduced or withheld if there are criminal convictions to take into account.

Lembit Öpik: Can the Minister confirm that the relevant care and welfare organisations in Northern Ireland have given their support to the very welcome arrangements that he has just described?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for the measure when it was being considered. I am happy to reassure him that it is supported not only in advocacy but in practice. By working with those agencies, we hope to identify those who qualify to take advantage of the retrospective provisions. Indeed, the agency has been able to identify from its records a significant number of people who made applications that were refused because of the strict application of time limits in the past. It will be in touch to ensure that the change in the law is brought to the attention of those who may be able to take advantage of it. As a caveat, however, I must add that there may be other reasons why people are refused under the scheme—but at least they will not be refused because it was not until their 20s, or indeed their 40s, that they were able to face up to the reality of child abuse and became confident enough to speak to other people about it.

Lady Hermon: We are considering victims of abuse, and I am particularly concerned by note No. 2 in the ''General Notes to Tariff of Injuries'':

    ''When compensation is paid for any physical injury described in the tariff, a separate award for mental injury will not be made, as the tariff award includes an element of compensation''.

Will the Minister clarify how a victim will be compensated for mental trauma with which they have lived for 20 or 30 years? Will compensation for

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such mental damage be paid in an award for physical injury, as set out in the tariff scheme?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady raises an issue that is a natural consequence of moving to a tariff-based scheme. Although the green book or other guides operate when calculating civil damages, multiple-injury formulation is presently carried out to calculate the appropriate compensation for pain and suffering. There has been some criticism of the way in which the scheme will operate in cases of multiple injury. However, in a tariff scheme there has to be a formula to deal with multiple injuries that somehow reflects the current reality under common law—that a judge or jury comes up with one figure to cover all injuries, rather than considering separate elements.

In calculating the tariff, the information that forms its basis contains some consideration of the trauma that goes with an injury. When an injury may be mental there will be a separate calculation, because such an injury may greatly outweigh the physical injury. For child victims, the injury may mostly be the mental trauma with which they have lived for most of their lives. If the hon. Lady is seeking a reassurance that in such cases the calculation of compensation will be subject to separate consideration, I give her that reassurance.

The hon. Lady has obliquely raised the issue of multi-injuries formulae. There is a multi-injuries formula in the scheme, as there must be if we accept that there can be multiple injuries. The general notes refer to that, rather than to what I was saying about injuries that are mainly trauma and mental damage. Perhaps the hon. Lady can re-explore the issue if she catches your eye, Mr. Hurst. I will try to come back to it in my concluding remarks, as I may not have understood her point.

Under the current arrangements, awards can be reduced or withheld if there are criminal convictions to take into account. Those who are guilty of terrorist crime also completely lose their entitlement to compensation. We propose to treat all convictions for scheduled offences or other crime in the same way as such convictions are already treated under the scheme in Great Britain. The criteria that determine how a conviction will be treated will be based on two factors: the seriousness of the crime, as shown by the length of sentence, and the period that has elapsed since the sentence was passed. The calculation will be detailed in a table that will be made available in the guidance for applicants. As a result, all claims will be handled consistently, ensuring equity of treatment and transparency for applicants.

The change is being proposed for two reasons: first, the need for openness and transparency in the new scheme; secondly, to reflect the wider political and security developments in Northern Ireland since the current legislation was passed in 1988. It is worth remembering that a blanket ban on compensation for those who have been convicted at any time of a scheduled offence brings within its net individuals who may have been free of all such associations for 30 years, and whose participation was peripheral and at a young age. In my short time as a Minister, members of almost all parties in Northern Ireland have made

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representations to me on behalf of the sort of people whom I have described, who have been refused compensation as a result of convictions that they accumulated when they were young, but who for 30 years have been out of trouble or have had no more dealings with their former associates.

 
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Prepared 22 April 2002