Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. Browne: I am obliged to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that. The criticism appears to be that the people in Victim Support Northern Ireland who offer advice are not lawyers. I could have said that in one sentence. They are not, but the whole purpose of the scheme is to enable people to access their right to compensation without having to employ lawyers. It would be an admission of failure if we said that people would need a lawyer to access the scheme. The

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Government argue that the scheme will be so simple and straightforward that people will not need to engage lawyers. Indeed, if we discover over time that they do, when that has not happened in Great Britain, we will have failed.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has made some valuable suggestions. It essentially said that even trained volunteers in Victim Support Northern Ireland would not be able to operate the scheme as it operates at present. I agree with that. As I understand it, even trained lawyers are having difficulty operating it because there is such dispute about certain things. We have set aside a significant amount of money for the training of victim support volunteers so that they can be trained to the highest standard to provide the level of advice that will be necessary. The added advantage is that because they are being paid from money that we are providing to the organisation, we are expanding and improving the skills of the organisation, but we are also not taking significantly from the fund that can be used to compensate individuals.

Widening eligibility represents a marked improvement to the scheme. No longer will an applicant have to be present at an incident if mental illness occurs as a result of a violent crime committed against a loved one. That is the aspect of the present criminal injuries and compensation scheme about which I probably receive the most correspondence. People tell me that they are no less the victim of an incident because they only heard about it second hand and its effect can be as serious and sometimes more serious. If they had been there, they would have been able to see the extent of the injury and kept it in some perspective. We are responding to a growing public demand from the public and elected representatives to address that perceived injustice. Professional rescuers will not be left out of the loop either if they suffer mental illness as a result of believing that a loved one has been injured or killed in an incident in which they are involved in their professional capacity.

Bereavement awards will be replaced by bereavement support payments, which provide a formal recognition of the grief and suffering of the close relatives of a murder victim. The quantum of such payments will be higher than the current bereavement awards, and will be made available to a much wider group. Unlike under the present system, cases may be reopened after a final settlement if there has been such a material change in the victim's medical condition as a consequence of the injury that injustice would occur if the original assessment were allowed to stand.

Finally, the current statutory absolute time limit of three years will be abolished and a new two-year flexible limit will be imposed. That means that claims should be made within two years of the date of the incident—a not unreasonable expectation in most cases—but in exceptional circumstances cases can be considered at any time after the two-year limit if it is reasonable and in the interests of justice to do so. In

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short, we have reduced the time limit but greatly increased the flexibility of the circumstances in which that time limit will be relaxed.

This should make a huge difference to many who would have lost out under the current law. In particular, it should make it possible for claims to be made by victims of childhood sexual abuse who, for very understandable reasons, have not been able to pursue the dreadful crimes committed against them as children until well into adulthood. The current system of an inflexible three-year limit has operated to the detriment of such people.

Unfortunately the proposed new arrangements would not help existing victims of child sexual abuse who have failed to meet the current strict time limit. As a result the Government have, after lengthy consideration, taken an almost unprecedented step. We have inserted into the proposed scheme a provision that will operate retrospectively and enable those victims of child sexual abuse, whose claims would have been disallowed under the current statute, an opportunity to submit a fresh claim under the terms of the new scheme. That is despite the fact that the incidents in question took place prior to the date of the introduction of the new arrangements. Such a move only serves to emphasise the Government's commitment to creating a better deal for some of the most deserving victims in our society.

A significant number of those people have in the past applied and been refused under the existing arrangements. They are known to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. We undertake to contact them so that they can take advantage of this window of opportunity to have their retrospective claims dealt with. The gross injustice that the strict rules have done to a significant number of the most vulnerable people in our society can at last be redressed.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does that also include those who may have gone to court for appeal and the court found against the appeal?

Mr. Browne: Without any help from my advisers, I can equivocally tell the hon. Gentleman yes.

We have also had to pay due regard to the more recent evolving political developments. As we look to the future in terms both of political stability and diminishing levels of violence and unrest, so we have looked ahead with the proposed arrangements for paying compensation. This is a statutory framework that we hope will govern compensation for crimes that will not include the equivalents of the horrors of Omagh, the carnage of the Shankill road bomb, the multiple killings or isolated murders of victims be they civilians or security force personnel.

Already, the figures show a marked decrease in the ratio of terrorist-related to non-terrorist injuries from 29 per cent. in 1992-93 to 8 per cent. in 1998-99. Terrorist-related awards have been, on average, twice the value of non-terrorist awards, reflecting the

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severity of the injuries sustained. Much of what we expect to deal with in the future will be the victims of Saturday night brawls, the victims of domestic violence, and the victims of general thuggery. Those cases are traumatic and terrible for victims but, with respect, they are nothing like the consequences meted out on people by terrorist atrocities.

We have removed the ban on compensation for those with terrorist connections. From 1 April 2002, all unspent criminal convictions—scheduled or otherwise—will be treated in the same way in assessing entitlement to compensation for an injury. Those changes are made with the best interests of the victim at heart. There is no other reason underlying the proposals. The changes are not made to cut levels of compensation or to reduce the compensation budget. They have their origins in providing a better deal for victims, and I have a clear conscience that that is precisely what they will do.

The proposals have been examined by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which raised a number of issues. We are grateful for its response and the concerns expressed are being considered. However, the proposed scheme is based on one that has been running for five years in Great Britain and has not yet been challenged. Nevertheless, we do not rely solely on that. We have undertaken a separate exercise and our lawyers are satisfied that the scheme in Northern Ireland complies with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Lady Hermon: The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission—I am not always a fan, but sometimes it is right—expressed concern that article 8 of the United Nations declaration of basic principles of justice for victims of crime and abuse of power was not adhered to by the new scheme. The commission said that it was

''deeply concerned that the tariff system will not provide victims with a fair award of compensation. The draft scheme provides instead 'a cold and clinical analysis' of the fact of an injury and bypasses the effect of that injury on the victim. The Commission considers that a speedy disposal of applications is not in all circumstances in the best interests of victims.''

The Chairman: Order. I have to stop the hon. Lady because that was also a bit long.

Mr. Browne: The argument is complicated. To be fair to the hon. Lady, unless she had read the whole quotation, she could have misrepresented it. Human rights issues cannot always be explained in a couple of sentences, so I was content to listen. Of course, Mr. McWilliam, your chairing of the sitting is helpful to us all.

My response to the hon. Lady may be shorter than her question. She raises the nub of the commission's argument that we have failed to meet the necessary standards on human rights. We undertook a separate exercise and took separate legal advice. The hon. Lady will be aware that lawyers do not always agree on human rights matters, which are not always amenable to specific definition. We went to significant lengths to ensure that we met those objectives in devising the scheme. We achieved transparency, efficiency and

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accuracy, and balanced that with the individual circumstances of applicants. I am reinforced in that view by the independent legal advice that I have received. I am happy to debate with the commission its alternative view.

Mr. Dodds: The Minister has stressed that the proposal is not motivated by a desire to cut down on the compensation bill. Will he state how much the Government estimate that they will save as a result of its introduction?

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001