Draft Criminal Injuries Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister may elaborate on this point later. Has this compensation scheme adjusted the rules about taking such people into consideration?

Mr. Browne: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The scheme will introduce considerable discretion. In a sense, it responds to the request for such discretion from the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). In the context of Northern Ireland, that requires us to take into account offences that could be categorised as terrorist offences. Broadly, the proposal is that those offences be considered in the same discretionary manner as other previous offences. I shall come to that later, when hon. Members will no doubt want to contribute. Interestingly, if I understand the Assembly's comments correctly, it supported that approach to compensation. I can understand why it is another necessary step if Northern Irish society is to move forward.

The terms of reference for the review were given to Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, although I do not think that he identified himself in his original report as the person who should be given the onerous task of conducting the review. He suggested that the job should be done and he was the right person to do it, because of his background and the information that he had accumulated. There was no mention of a tariff scheme in those terms of reference, and his recommendations were the genesis of the proposal before the Committee.

In its conclusion, the review pointed out the importance of appreciating that no imaginable scheme could satisfy all the relevant interests in every particular. This legislation does not attempt to meet that impossible objective. The review realised that a balance would have to be struck between issues of affordability for the public purse, predictability of expenditure, which is obviously important for

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managing budgets and paying tolerable compensation. They stress that

    ''nothing in the course of our work has shaken a conviction that arrangements in Great Britain, let alone the one in Northern Ireland, are generous to victims in comparison with the arrangements prevailing in other jurisdictions.''

Members of the Committee will remember my earlier reference to the gross amount of money being paid by reference to the rest of Europe. We should not lose sight of that premise.

Sir Kenneth's conclusions and those of his colleagues, one of whom is a highly respected social services professional with much experience in dealing with the consequences of traumatic incidents for individual victims, were reached only after lengthy consultations with people who had been the victims of criminal violence, and with organisations representing such individuals.

I want to place on record the Government's gratitude to members of the review team, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, Professor Desmond Greer and Mrs Marion Gibson, who each brought a specialism to the review. Their report is a major piece of research into criminal injuries compensation in Northern Ireland.

The evidence gathered by the review found that the main concerns about the existing common law-based criminal injuries compensation scheme centred on difficulties in the process of accessing compensation. For example, many people who thought that they should have been eligible for an award were not; others were, but found the process so humiliating, traumatic and lengthy that they sometimes wished that they had not bothered in the first place, especially if, at the end, the award was perceived as notional. Others felt excluded as their solicitors and barristers entered the adversarial ring and bartered with each other, over the heads of their clients, about the quantum of awards. Many felt a great sense of unfairness and inequity as they saw or heard of other cases involving similar injuries being settled at enormously varying amounts. Court appearances were seen as at best uncomfortable and at worst humiliating.

In response, Sir Kenneth concluded that the adversarial process, which underpins the settlement of civil claims and therefore the common law based criminal injuries compensation scheme, was itself partly responsible for much of the discontent. It follows, therefore, that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a common law system, while at the same time solving the grievances expressed by so many.

Lady Hermon (North Down): May I draw the Minister's attention to a submission to a Northern Ireland Assembly Committee by the Northern Ireland Law Society on the subject of victims and their attitude to the existing scheme? The submission drew attention to hard evidence, which states:

    ''We point to the absence of support for the government proposal from victims with experience of the present system. We draw your attention to the hard evidence from victims with

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    experience gathered by the Bloomfield Review team. A majority of respondents wanted no change. The minority who wanted change wanted a better process.''

Will the Minister please comment on that submission?

Mr. Browne: It would take all day if I were to take issue with every aspect of the Law Society's evidence to the ad hoc Committee of the Assembly with which I disagree. I have another speech that is three times the length of this one and the first two thirds of it is devoted to that. I decided to spare the Committee that lengthier speech, but I may be forced into making it.

The Law Society made several generalised statements to the ad hoc Committee with which I take issue, one of which is the assertion that there is an absence of support from victims for the proposals. The Law Society's assertion that a majority of respondents wanted no change is, in my understanding of the report, clearly wrong. Chapter 7 of the report details the concern about and the criticisms of the current arrangements in Northern Ireland in some significant detail from its researches. The overall thrust of the evidence focused on the need for a scheme of compensation that contains as few elements as possible that could cause additional stress or pain to the applicants. My reading of the report is that because of the weight of criticism from victims of the current scheme, the review concluded that the scheme needed to be reformed, root and branch. Otherwise, one cannot understand the review. The Law Society has fundamentally failed to understand the report if it is arguing that the report sets out the reasons for change, but from talking to victims, finds that it had not come about. The report is substantially based on the views of victims, which is why it came to the conclusion that it did.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Will the Minister explain why the Government, after looking at the review's recommendations, departed from what Sir Kenneth Bloomfield said about the introduction of a simpler scheme? He recommended such a scheme for minor cases, but said that the current system should remain for major ones.

Mr. Browne: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be critical of me in other circumstances where I have accepted the review's recommendations. My role as Minister behoves me to accept some recommendations and reject others and have a logical reason for doing so.

The Government were under no obligation to accept the detail of the recommendations. However, they were compelled to accept the main thrust, which expressed deep concern about the status quo, and a desire for a more transparent system. That would achieve the objective of preventing a significant amount of money from leaving the system and ending up in the hands of the legal profession. Transparency was necessary to ensure predictability and certainty. The review recommended a hybrid scheme, which was rejected because of the disparities that would occur at the top end of the tariff and the lower end of common law. Under a hybrid scheme, only about 10 per cent. of

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cases would have been dealt with using the common law approach, but the tariff would cater for about 90 per cent.

Having accepted the general thrust, we could apply it to all the recommendations and achieve Sir Kenneth's objectives. We accepted the main thrust of his argument, but felt that we could achieve his objectives by applying the same approach to all claims.

The review recommended that for all claims below a certain value—less serious injuries that do not prevent a person from eventually returning to a normal way of life—a tariff approach should be adopted. I would stress that the vast majority of claims fall into this category: 89 per cent. of such claims were settled for under £10,000 in 2000-01. It also recommended that legal costs should be withdrawn from the scheme in tariff cases, and that released funding of £5m should be redistributed to allow more victims to have access to the compensation scheme.

The report was published in July 1999 and copies were placed in the library of the House. The Government conducted a public consultation exercise on the findings of the review, and in June 2000 published their response. In June, we published a draft set of proposals that were subject to consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly and others, until the consultation period expired on 30 November.

The proposals that we are debating today, on which others have had the opportunity to raise concerns, fundamentally change the way in which a victim of violent crime obtains financial compensation for injuries. They do not change the principles on which our system of compensation is based, which provide that, by way of a financial award, the state recognises the wrong done to an individual through a crime of violence by a third party. The absolute right of the victim remains to pursue the legal liability of that third party to pay compensation as determined in a civil action.

The proposed changes will ensure that those requiring access to the compensation scheme have to negotiate as few hurdles as possible to achieve a fair and adequate award. The system should be simple, straightforward, transparent and open. It should lead to a fair award of compensation based on current average values.

Although Northern Ireland is a separate jurisdiction with separate civil case law, which has led to the evolution of its own criminal injuries compensation scheme, concerns have often been expressed about the disparity of treatment between criminally injured victims in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Consequently, to aid us in producing a system with the necessary attributes, we used as a template the system that has operated successfully in Great Britain for more than five years. We had also to have regard to the scheme already in existence, along with the broader principle of parity of public expenditure where it is achievable and practicable. Our response to Sir Kenneth's recommendations took account of those objectives

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and, without adverse outcome on victims of crime in Northern Ireland, we sought to achieve parity with the structure of the scheme in Great Britain.

We have proposed that all claims should be settled on the basis of an injuries tariff with set values, with additional compensation in certain circumstances for loss of earnings or earning capacity, costs associated with long-term care and other related special expenses, and dependency, bereavement and funeral expenses in fatal cases. We must bear in mind that most cases are settled without the need for additional compensation. For example, less than 1 per cent. of all cases that are settled are for awards of more than £50,000.

That means that a straightforward injury will attract a straightforward tariff award, as listed in the literature that will be made available to applicants. For example, a simple broken nose—if there is such a thing—will attract £2,500, as will a dislocated jaw or temporary blurred vision lasting less than 13 weeks. Under the current common law-based arrangements, the Compensation Agency's ''Guidelines to Offers'' recommend settling those injuries between £1,750 and £2,750. Committee members will see that we have pitched the tariff in what statisticians might call the upper quartile of the range of likely awards. The new tariff awards will also include a small percentage amount to cover any pecuniary loss.

The aim in all cases is to enable the victim to access compensation without the need for lengthy and cumbersome bureaucratic and legal processes. It will also allow applicants to know from the start how much they are entitled to, and reassure them that their injuries are worth exactly the same as those of anyone else in a similar position. For more serious injuries where recovery is slow and affects the ability to work for more than 28 weeks, the scheme allows for lost earnings or earning capacity to be compensated on an individual basis.

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Prepared 13 December 2001