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Less than 7% receive payouts for wrongful convictions, sparking calls for reform

13 Jun 2024 5 minute read
FW Pomeroy’s Statue of Justice on top of the Central Criminal Court building, Old Bailey, London. Photo Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

The compensation system for victims of miscarriages of justice must be reformed, a lawyer has said, after fewer than 7% of applications were successful in the last eight years.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that, between April 2016 and March 2024, just 39 out of 591 compensation applications from miscarriage of justice victims were successful – or 6.6%.

Legal publication, the Justice Gap, reported that the MoJ has rewarded just £2.4 million to 35 of the 39 successful applicants over that period. The Justice Gap compares this to the £81 million paid to miscarriage of justice victims between 1999 and 2007 – when there were 306 successful applicants.

Matt Foot, co-director at legal charity Appeal, said the low success rate in the past eight years was because the test for compensation, introduced by the coalition Government in 2014, is so difficult to meet.

The traditional test of guilt in the criminal justice system is whether a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” – and it is up to the prosecution to prove it.

‘Reversed the burden of proof’

However, Mr Foot said the compensation system has “reversed the burden of proof” so that the wrongfully convicted has to prove they themselves are innocent “beyond a reasonable doubt” to receive a pay-out.

“It is extremely difficult to prove you didn’t do something,” he said.

“I can’t prove I didn’t put a bomb in a building.”

He said he would like to see miscarriage of justice victims receive “a decent figure” in compensation “but it’s not a simple matter of financial mathematics”.

“It’s the principle of putting people back on their feet so that they can attempt to start life again,” he said.

“And we should be doing far more. We shouldn’t just be giving them money. We should be offering them long-term therapeutic support, and looking after their families whose lives have also been ruined.”

He said the Government should “scrap” the current system, and return to an “ex gratia” discretionary system where claims are judged on a case-by-case basis.

“There aren’t hundreds of (cases) we’re talking about here every year,” he said.

“It’s a collection of cases and you can look at them and decide what’s the loss that people have gone through and what they should get on a sensible basis.”

European Court of Human Rights

Mr Foot’s comments come after two men who served years behind bars in the UK before their convictions were overturned lost a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights over their rejected compensation claims.

Sam Hallam, who was convicted of murder, and Victor Nealon, who was found guilty of attempted rape, previously brought legal action at the High Court over the Justice Secretary’s refusal to award them pay-outs.

Their compensation bids were rejected on the basis that it was not the case that a “new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that there has been a miscarriage of justice”.

After losing their challenges in the UK courts, including at the Supreme Court in 2019, Mr Hallam and Mr Nealon took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, claiming the basis of the compensation refusal violated their right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty.

But in a judgment on Tuesday, a panel of judges at the ECHR ruled with a majority of 12 to five that there had been no violation of Mr Hallam and Mr Nealon’s human rights.

However, in their decision dismissing the pair’s challenge, the panel of judges at Strasbourg also criticised the compensation system for victims, saying that the test is “virtually insurmountable”. It added that it was thus “extremely rare” for “innocent people” to succeed.

Mr Hallam, from east London, served more than seven years after he was sentenced to life as a teenager following his conviction at the Old Bailey in 2005 for the murder of a trainee chef.

Mr Nealon, originally from Dublin, was given a life sentence after his trial at Hereford Crown Court and served 17 years in jail – 10 more than the seven-year minimum term after he persisted in asserting he was innocent.

They were both set free after appeal judges ruled that fresh evidence made their convictions unsafe.

Mr Hallam’s conviction was quashed in 2012.

Former postman Mr Nealon, who was convicted in 1997 of the attempted rape of a woman in Redditch, Worcestershire, won his appeal in December 2013.

Following the verdict, Michael O’Brien, one of the Cardiff Newsagent Three who spent 11 years in prison for the murder of newsagent Phillip Saunders, immediately launched a petition to the Westminster Parliament calling for the law to be changed.

The petition says: “As a victim of a miscarriage of justice myself, and someone who did get compensation, I feel compelled to fight for justice for all those who have been wrongly refused compensation.

“A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed a UK court decision that requires victims to prove their innocence before they are entitled to compensation after their convictions are overturned. This ruling undermines the presumption of innocence once the conviction is overturned at the Court of Appeal.

“Cases like Sam Hallam and Victor Nealon highlight this injustice. Both were victims of separate miscarriages of justice but were denied compensation under this unfair requirement. The law must be changed in Parliament to ensure that all victims receive fair treatment and rightful compensation without having to prove their innocence again.

“In the case of Victor Nealon there was DNA evidence that proved he was Innocent and pointed to another suspect and yet the government in all their wisdom said he was not innocent enough for compensation.

“Sign this petition to demand that Parliament restore the rights for victims and uphold true justice.”

The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.

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