Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Hylton: I support the contention that a three-year period from the 18th birthday may be too short. At the moment, I am in correspondence with Ministers in Northern Ireland concerning the case of a young woman. When she was 15 or 16 she was raped by, of all people, a policeman. She suffered consequent trauma and much mental suffering which was aggravated when she had to give evidence in court in a criminal prosecution which led to the conviction and sentencing of a policeman. By some oversight, no claim for compensation for injury was made until after her 21st birthday. She was therefore out of time. In that case, I am asking for an ex gratia payment.

I suggest to the Committee that there needs to be some mechanism for allowing such cases which, for some reason, fall to be out of time but which should be allowed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Perhaps, before the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, speaks, he will allow me to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for referring to an element of my amendment which I failed to mention. We propose that it should be three years from the date of the incident or three years from the 18th birthday, whichever is the later. That covers both the examples that I gave and the one which the noble Lord gave. It is clear that very many injuries or cases of child abuse will not become apparent until after the 18th birthday. I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing that to the attention of the Committee.

Lord Hylton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said. However, the particular case that I mentioned did not cover the fact that the woman was out of time.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the past year saw the greatest number of out of time applications (3,704), he will be slightly surprised to hear that this is one aspect of the Bill which I believe is an improvement on the present scheme. I agree with the proposal to reduce the time in which to make application. I believe that in

17 Oct 1995 : Column 693

practice it will not make all that much difference, because the vast majority of claims are made very shortly after the injury. I believe that in the normal run of cases a time limit of two years is an adequate maximum. The problem is that in making an application the further away one gets from the date of the injury the more difficult it is to investigate fairly the original incident.

It is true that most police forces retain records for three years before they are destroyed. One is not talking solely of the destruction of police records but also of the tracing of hospital records. A person who puts in a claim two years nine months after the event may not remember the exact date when the assault occurred. He may not even remember the month in which it occurred. One then starts numerous cross-correspondence with the police force—the applicant having claimed that he reported the incident at the time—to try to chase down a criminal offence about which the applicant has no clear recollection of the date of its occurrence. I believe that a great deal of time is taken up in pursuing claims that are put in shortly before the end of the three-year time limit. I believe that anything that is done to encourage people to make claims earlier is to be supported. These days there is a great deal more awareness of criminal injury compensation claims than in the past, partly because the police are encouraged to advise victims of crime of their rights. As the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said, Victim Support also advises and encourages many people. I believe that a time limit of two rather than three years is perfectly defensible.

I should like to stress what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has said and the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. It is essential that whatever time limit is set the scheme should have discretion to allow cases to be considered outside it. I refer to cases of sexual abuse, in particular child sex abuse.

All experience shows that in the case of children who are abused in their youth and teenage years, particularly if the abuse is committed by a member of the family, a relation or even a close family friend, there are tremendous pressures on the victims not to make it known. They do not have the courage to report what has happened to them until they are in their twenties. Often, they do not go to the police until they are married and have children of an age when they were themselves abused. They suddenly become worried whether the same member of the family, who is probably still around one generation on, will begin to abuse their own children. It is essential that there should be discretion to allow the authority to waive the time limit in cases of that kind. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that in the past year of the 3,704 out of time applications received by the board 2,715 were allowed. Almost all of them probably related to cases of child sexual abuse or sexual offences against young adult women.

Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, one would hope that had such an application fallen under the English scheme the time limit would immediately have been waived. I do not know the whole of the facts. However, the policy that I have pursued since I have been chairman is that if there is still sufficient evidence

17 Oct 1995 : Column 694

readily available to allow the board to make a fair decision I will allow the application, even if it is several years out of date. I recognise that a person who has been abused in his or her teens, or at a younger age, often does not have the opportunity or determination to bring it to the notice of the authorities until his or her mid-twenties. I believe that those cases are covered. I also believe that the cases relating to those under 18 are covered.

While we are not directly affected by the same rules as the courts and look at three years from the date of the incident rather than three years from the date of majority, if the applicant is a minor, invariably in practice if an application is made by a minor within three years of reaching his or her majority, and the incident occurred before the age of 18, that application is allowed in under the scheme.

I believe that the Government are improving the scheme by reducing the general time limit from three to two years. It will encourage people to make application at a time when incidents can be more easily investigated. I support it, provided it is made clear that there is a wide discretion within that authority to deal with the cases that I have mentioned, although they may fall outside the time limit.

Lord Ackner: I refer to a point which arises from the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle. Wide discretion is not provided in the scheme as it stands. Under paragraph 11 it is provided that a claims officer may waive this requirement in exceptional circumstances. That gives a very narrow discretion. One only has to look at the phrase "exceptional circumstances" in other legislation, for instance that dealing with suspended sentences. A suspended sentence can be given only in exceptional circumstances. One has only to look at the decided cases to see how narrow that provision is. If the claims officer considered that in all the circumstances it was just and reasonable, there would be a discretion which would cover particularly the unexceptional case of child abuse. That is a category on its own, and it is unexceptional on the basis of what the noble Lord has said. Clearly, if there is to be a discretion it must be in much wider terms than these.

With regard to reducing the period from three to two years, it is desirable to try to get any litigation on as near as possible to the event. That is generally accepted to be the position. For years and years a three-year period with a wide discretion has applied to all personal injury cases, such as road accidents, where shortness of memory is of particular importance and police records are clearly relevant. It also applies to medical negligence, which is another wide field in relation to this type of litigation, and, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, it also applies to all personal injury cases that arise out of accidents at work.

There is no move that I know of generally to reduce the period from three to two years. That being so, it is difficult to see why this field should be singled out. It has nothing to do with the question of preserving the tariff system with the advantages which have been so clearly emphasised; it is purely an administrative revision. The fact that the so-called "illegal" tariff

17 Oct 1995 : Column 695

provided one year, shows how arbitrary one can be in relation to tinkering with the present situation. Why one year? Why double it now? Finally, why not stay with the system which has been working satisfactorily and leave alone this particular aspect, which has a certain aura of meanness about it.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar: Perhaps I can make a practical observation to the Committee—that is, that time and again those of us who sit throughout the country on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, find that different police forces have different rules in regard to destroying records.

I do not wish to enter the debate as to whether the period concerned should be one, two or three years; that was dealt with by my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey. But police officers come to hearings with no records and the board is asked to decide on the balance of probabilities whether an offence occurred. When we ask why no records are available, we are told that the police force has a rule to destroy them after two years and in some places after three years.

Perhaps the Government will take the opportunity in the context of the Bill to consult on this matter with the police forces throughout the United Kingdom and not just in England and Wales—the Bill tends to have an English and Welsh emphasis. It would be helpful if the Government laid down some rules as to how long records should be kept. I suspect—I use that word advisedly—that cost is behind the reasoning. If records have to be stored, that storage must be paid for. Records are being destroyed and victims may be being denied justice by the absence of those records. The board can be faced with a police officer who may not even be the officer involved in the investigation. He comes along and says, "I spoke to PC Smith about this, and he said this or that". When we ask if he has any records, he says that they were destroyed and that it is the force's policy to destroy them within a two or three-year period.

This is a real practical problem with which the board is faced, whichever authority is involved and whether a tariff scheme exists. When we look at the question of eligibility, we must look to the background of the case. When records are destroyed in the way that they are at the moment, injustice may result, not only to the individual, but also to the public purse. The board may take a decision in the wrong direction and give the applicant the benefit of doubt in the absence of records. Perhaps the Minister will take away that thought, which occurred to me as the debate was progressing this afternoon, and consult with police authorities to try to obtain uniformity throughout the United Kingdom as to when police records should be destroyed.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page