We shouldn’t deny victims compensation because they have a conviction

Rear View Of Depressed Woman Sitting On Bed At Home

Denying victims compensation because of their past flies in the face of the principles of both rehabilitation and justice (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

A few years ago, James (not his real name) was stabbed in a terrorist attack. He almost died, and had to spend time in hospital. Following this he became extremely depressed and was eventually prescribed anti-depressants. He was later diagnosed with PTSD as a result of what he’d been through.

The government rightfully recognises the significant physical, emotional and often financial impact that serious crime can have on victims, and provides a small amount of compensation to help. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA), which administers the scheme, says: ‘… [the award] will never fully compensate you for what you have suffered or lost – it is just society’s way of recognising that you have been a victim.’

Unfortunately for James, the CICA refuses to grant this recognition to people with unspent convictions – James was denied any compensation because he’d previously served a nine-month prison sentence.

Thousands of people like James have been denied this recognition, even though they have suffered emotional, physical and financial harm, just like any other victim. They are denied the symbolic gesture of recognising the harm done to them, but also the very real practical support that compensation can provide.

Victims of violent or sexual crime are excluded from the scheme if they have an ‘unspent’ conviction that resulted in a prison or community sentence for any offence. Under the law, a conviction becomes ‘spent’ after a certain period of time has passed, meaning you no longer need to disclose it when applying for most jobs. While a conviction is ‘unspent’ it can be used to discriminate against someone applying for work, housing, insurance – or criminal injuries compensation.

At Unlock, an independent advocacy charity supporting people facing stigma, prejudice and discrimination because of a criminal record, we’re calling for this to change. We want to see a return to the previous rules, which allowed decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.

From 2016 to 2019, 3,500 victims of violent crime – including 420 victims of rape and other sexual violence – were refused compensation due to their criminal record.

We’ve seen a victim of Grievous Bodily Harm denied compensation because of a three-year-old conviction for “threatening and abusive behaviour” after he heckled a politician. Appallingly, we’ve seen a victim of an organised grooming gang denied compensation because she had spent time in custody as a result of the abuse.

The charity Women Against Rape has recently highlighted other shocking examples, including a woman who was repeatedly raped by two men when she was 13 being refused a payout because she had been prosecuted for driving without insurance and refusing to take a sample test.

In each of these cases, the harm caused to these victims was far greater than any harm caused by them. These victims faced lifelong consequences as the result of the crimes committed against them but were denied the compensation that other victims would have received.

Appallingly, we’ve seen a victim of an organised grooming gang denied compensation because she had spent time in custody as a result of the abuse

The amount of compensation victims receive is calculated according to a government issued tariff of injuries. Amounts vary – from £1,500 for recovery from a fractured jaw, up to £250,000 for someone who is left paralysed in their arms and legs.

For the vast majority of victims, we’re not talking about a life changing sum of money. But compensation could keep someone from getting into debt due to time off work, or pay for private counselling to help them recover from the trauma they’ve experienced – we know that waiting lists for counselling on the NHS are long, and mental health support can be a crucial part of the recovery process for survivors of sexual violence and abuse.

We know that the impact of the unspent conviction rule is likely to be even greater than official figures show, as most victims with unspent convictions will see they are excluded from the scheme and not bother to apply. What the data can’t tell us is how many people with unspent convictions don’t even report the crimes committed against them, because they expect to face stigma and discrimination from a legal system that will always view them as an ‘offender’ first, human being second.

The consequences of this dehumanisation have implications for all of us, not just those with criminal records. If a young man newly released from prison is then violently targeted by his former gang, why should he co-operate with a criminal justice system that says he doesn’t count?

If a victim of domestic abuse is denied compensation because of a past conviction, how will she regain financial independence and avoid having to return to her abuser? How will she trust the system enough to report the continuing abuse, having been told that she is worthless – first by her abuser and then by the legal system?

Denying victims compensation because of their past flies in the face of the principles of both rehabilitation and justice, and creates a dangerous hierarchy of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims. Incorrect perceptions of people with criminal records as inherently dangerous and untrustworthy also contribute to this hierarchy. It also creates conditions that could increase the likelihood of reoffending.

Before 2012, decision makers had discretion to pay out awards for those with unspent convictions on a case-by-case basis, where there were exceptional reasons not to withhold or reduce an award. This meant there was room to treat people fairly. In 2012, the government changed the rules to exclude all victims with an unspent conviction that resulted in a prison or community sentence.

We are asking for a return to the previous system; a system that deemed people with criminal records to be as deserving of support and dignity as everyone else. The link between experiencing abuse, trauma and offending is more widely understood than ever – and has been acknowledged by the government.

If the government truly wants to break the cycles of both victimisation and offending it’s time to walk the walk and make this right – by returning to the discretionary system where applicants with unspent convictions are assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing kathryn.snowdon@metro.co.uk 

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