The government yesterday dismissed a ruling from the UK Supreme Court regarding payment of compensation where there has been a miscarriage of justice.
Two former prisoners from Northern Ireland yesterday claimed victory in their fight to obtain compensation after they had been cleared of any guilt by the High Court but had still been refused compensation, even after having served very lengthy prison terms.
An unnamed spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said that despite yesterday’s ruling, he expected compensation to be paid “in only a very few cases.”
A third man lost his case on the basis that his innocence had not been proved. It is this aspect of yesterday’s ruling that is most troubling as in order to achieve compensation, it requires a person to prove their innocence whereas the law requires that the prosecution should prove their guilt.
Thus we have a reversal the normal situation that one expects to see in court where the onus is on the prosecution to produce evidence that is sufficiently strong to persuade a jury that the defendant is guilty rather than for the defence to prove his innocence.
Previous confusion with regard to compensation involving miscarriages of justice arose out of a ruling in 2004 by the Law Lords which came up with several different definitions of the term “miscarriage of justice”.
Yesterday’s ruling by the UK Supreme Court seeks to clarify the position by introducing a new definition which essentially says that if new evidence can be produced that shows that the prosecution case would have been fatally undermined during the trial and that a jury therefore would almost certainly not have convicted the defendant, then a ‘miscarriage of justice’ would be said to have taken place.
In theory at least, yesterday’s ruling potentially opens the door for hundreds of former prisoners to claim compensation for being wrongly imprisoned.
The government may feel confident in dismissing this new ruling but given the vigour with which former inmates tend to pursue litigation against the government, the Coalition may very well be in for a shock.
There is also the possibility that the ruling by the Supreme Court may not satisfy the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights in as much that the Convention makes it clear that it is up to the prosecuting authorities to prove guilt, not the defendant to prove innocence. The idea that somebody is innocent until proved guilty has been the backbone of British justice for many hundreds of years.
There is a precedent for changing the rules however.
For example, in the case of a defendant accused of sexual offences against children, the law makes it clear that the child’s evidence is to be presumed honest and true unless the defendant can produce compelling evidence to the contrary.
In these cases therefore, it is effectively required that the defendant prove his innocence rather than that the prosecution prove his guilt.
There is another aspect to this as well which is strictly political.
Governments hate to admit they are wrong and the Crown Prosecution Service and police hate to admit that they are responsible for the conviction and imprisonment of the wrong person.
After major trials we often see the CPS and police representatives standing on the steps of the court proclaiming their victory in bringing the perpetrator to justice and going on to tell us what a terrible person the defendant is and how well the prosecuting authorities have done to “bring him to Justice”.
When that same perpetrator is later cleared of his offence in the Court of Appeal, both the CPS and the police are nowhere to be seen for fear of having to admit that in fact, they got everything wrong.
Yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court fails to truly define exactly what a miscarriage of justice is and, although improving on the previous situation, still leaves the door wide open for such travesties of justice to continue in the future.
Talk to a prison governor and he will tell you that regardless of what he may feel, he has no choice but to accept the decision of the court in deciding whether somebody is innocent or guilty. If for example, during the prisoner’s attendance in an offending behaviour course it becomes clear that the prisoner may in fact be innocent, the prison is supposedly obliged to pass that information on to the relevant authorities.
The problem is, the relevant authorities then have to investigate the possibility that the time and the money already spent on bringing the prisoner to court in the first place may well have been wasted and that the person who was actually responsible for the crime may still be at liberty.
In other words, they have to admit that they got it wrong and it is this that is the biggest stumbling block to progress in this field.
Many would say, and TheOpinionSite.org is inclined to agree with them, that in very many cases the police don’t really care who gets put in prison for committing a particular crime as long as somebody takes the blame.
“Clear up rates” for each of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales are regularly monitored by the Home Office and none of them want to be seen to be failing.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, although seeking to clarify an already confused situation, it’s actually quite “woolly” and may actually make the situation more difficult for those who have genuinely suffered a miscarriage of justice.
However, TheOpinionSite.org believes that to an extent at least, the court’s hands were firmly tied behind its back.
The fact is that if compensation were payable to all those who had spent time in prison and were then found to be innocent of the crime they were alleged to have committed, it would mean that all those who are kept, sometimes for years, on remand and were then found to be not guilty of the offence would most likely be entitled to substantial payouts.
So there we have it; the real reason for the government’s confidence in claiming that compensation will only likely be paid in’ a very few cases’.
What the government is really saying is that this is all about money and that it has no intention of paying anything to people who have been through the Criminal Justice System and wrongly imprisoned, even those whose convictions have been formally quashed by the Court of Appeal.
That in itself, to any normal person, sounds like a gross miscarriage of justice.