Open season on Criminal Injuries Claims?

by Alison Lobb

AS someone who over the course of my career has dealt with too many claims for Criminal Injuries Compensation to remember, I am a little intrigued by some of the media attention there has been on that system recently. 

I was naturally interested to read Dominic Lawson’s opinion piece in the Sunday Times on 3rd September. In an article headed “Easy Money for Sexual Abuse Claim Profiteers” he quite reasonably argued that anyone who was exposed as having made a false compensation claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA ) should have to refund any compensation they received. He further opined that the CICA was even encouraging false allegations to be made against celebrities so that the accusers could pocket the compensation , even if their accusations were never upheld.  He reviewed the amount recoverable under the CICA compensation tariff and reported that the sum of £27,000 was available to a claimant who had suffered a psychiatric injury. 

So far, so good really. I mean it all sort of makes sense, there is nothing in there that is factually incorrect, and it is understandable why the public would be enraged.

The following day the Daily Telegraph followed suit.  “Ministers pledge to end compensation hand-outs to fake victims” (why are they always hand-outs?)  They reported that “fantasists are allowed to keep their compensation even after their claims have been exposed as false” and “the problem has been compounded by a compensation culture that has included lawyers touting for business for (sic) sex abuse victims.”

Then, 5th September, the Mail online.  (Not something I normally read if I can help it).Their news was more or less a rehash of the Telegraph article but they found their own celebrity example: “Dozens of people who have accused Sir Edward Heath of sexual abuse could now be entitled to tax-payer funded compensation,  even though he has been dead for 12 years” . Being the Daily Mail of course they had “a source” who said “the compensation claims are akin to wining the lottery”.  They also quoted former MP Harvey Proctor, himself a victim of false allegations as saying “the CICA should not be giving money to people just because they say they are victims. It is a nonsense and an affront to justice, and an insult to real victims of crime”.

I agree with him.  I really do, even if it was in the Daily Mail.  If that was the way it worked I would be outraged too.  But I wonder how many of the authors of these articles have spoken to someone who has made a CICA claim, or a lawyer who deals with them, and found out what really happens.

I would be the first to condemn anyone who makes false accusations, profits from them, and/or ruins someone’s life, career and reputation.  Unfortunately there are people out there who will do that for their own gain.  There are also many, many people out there who have been real victims of  sexual predators.  Most of those people have had their own lives ruined, through no fault of their own, often through years of grooming, through emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and all of that complicated by the fact that no-one believed them if they dared to complain.  They are entitled to have some form of reparation and the CICA scheme, being a fund to compensate the victims of crimes of violence, is the appropriate place for them to be remunerated.

There are also many grounds on which the CICA can refuse compensation.  That includes claimants who have not co-operated with the police, who have left it too long to claim without good reason, or who have significant previous criminal convictions (even in most cases, if the crimes have been committed after the abuse took place).  These limitations -  usually rigorously applied – should  weed out most ,if not all, spurious claims.  And if they subsequently obtain compensation from another source (the abuser themselves, say, or the operators of a children’s home) they have to repay what they received from the CICA.

Last week after this rush of news stories the Guardian carried a report that I recognised as far more akin to my own experiences of dealing with clients.  “Compensation body told Rotherham abuse victim she consented”.  This related to Sammy Woodhouse, one of the most prominent survivors of the Rotherham scandal. She was refused compensation initially on the basis that she had consented to being sexually abused, including rape.  She was 14 years old.  This not only displays a blatant disregard of the nature of the offence and the age at which a minor is legally deemed to give consent, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole grooming process.  Fortunately for her she had instructed a specialist and expert firm of solicitors who were able to fight the claim for her through the appeal process and recover the full amount to which she was entitled.

That is much more in line with the kind of experience I have had with the CICA.  They will (quite rightly as they are protecting public funds), usually look for any reason they can to refuse claims.  I have never, in 20 years, come across a case where anyone has been able to go to the CICA, say they are a victim, and be given money.  The process requires the victim to prove that they were a crime of violence, prove that they were injured (you don’t just say you’ve got a psychological injury and get the money, guys, there has to be a medical expert to provide a detailed report and prognosis), and show that they do not fall under any of the exclusions.  Cases can go on for many years.

Most abuse survivors don’t want money.  They want justice; they want an end to the way they have felt for so many years, and for someone to be held responsible for that.  In fact if a claimant came to me and asked how much they would get I would be immediately suspicious of their motives.  They usually come in to see a solicitor because someone (often the police) has suggested that to them as the next port of call, and they want to know what we can do for them.  To have to explain that really there is nothing we can do except seek compensation for them is difficult, and they usually leave disappointed.  Sometimes they don’t come back.  But sometimes the money helps them rebuild their lives, or to give something to their families or their children that they haven’t been able to do before.  It can help them seek Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is the best way of providing treatment, and that can help them move forward, perhaps out of a life of crime or addiction, or into education or into the workplace.  In my 20 years of dealing with abuse victims, I don’t think I have even seen one whose primary motive was seeking money.  I am not saying they aren’t out there, but the suggestion that this is generally a money making exercise for false claimants is I think naïve and uninformed. 

The danger is, as with many justice issues, that what’s in the media tends to be believed by the majority, and this government being what it is, with a mission to save public money, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this is used as an excuse to “reform” the CICA system. We have seen before the government’s efforts to penalise the many for the malicious action of the few. And we all know that reform probably won’t be in the interests of the victims......