Rachel Thain, a lawyer specialising in criminal injuries abuse claims, looks at how the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is causing victims of abuse and other violent crime to be re-traumatised.
A report published by Baroness Newlove raises a number of concerns about the Ministry of Justice’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). As I lawyer specialising in criminal injuries abuse claims I have had these same concerns for a number of years. Having spoken to hundreds of people who have suffered truly awful harm, the recurring complaint is about the CICA’s eligibility criteria and process of applying for compensation. All too often I find myself explaining to victims of serious sexual abuse and assault that for technical reasons they may be ineligible to receive compensation. Their frustration is entirely understandable and I can only agree that the CICA scheme often results in injustice. Of course, my sympathy is of little comfort to someone who has suffered serious injury as a result of an unprovoked assault or years of abuse.
How the CICA scheme lets victims down
The CICA scheme contains a number of exclusions that prevent innocent victims recovering compensation for their injuries. For example, if a victim of a violent crime suffers a deterioration in their mental health and, having hit rock bottom, then commits a non-violent crime themselves resulting in a Community Order, they could be refused compensation for the years of horrific abuse they suffered as a child. One mistake, even if it was made years before, can result in a claim for compensation being rejected.
As Mr Jenkins from South Wales told me, “I was tortured with red hot irons in my own home and my ear was bitten off. It feels like anyone can do anything they want to me and there’s nothing I can do about it because of one mistake ten years ago. I will be scarred for life and there’s nothing I can do.”
Mr Jenkins’ story is not unique. As a lawyer dealing with criminal injuries abuse claims I have dealt with numerous cases where men and women have been denied compensation for horrendous abuse simply because they made a one-off mistake themselves.
Problems with the two year time limit
The two-year time limit can be a problem, particularly where there is a long running police investigation or if it takes time for the victim to feel able to report what happened to the police. Victims of abuse and assault are also frequently unaware of their legal rights and the strict rules that govern the compensation scheme. As Baroness Newlove says, “fewer than two-in-five people could remember being told about their entitlement to claim by the police or victim services”.
If the deadline passes without the victim of a violent crime even being aware that the CICA scheme exists, they may be refused compensation. While the CICA has the discretion to extend the time limit in ‘exceptional circumstances’, they are unwilling to do so when the reason for delay is a victim’s lack of knowledge about the scheme’s existence. How can a traumatised victim of a violent crime apply to a scheme they simply do not know exists? How can that be justice?
Being refused compensation on such arbitrary grounds can result in a victim becoming re-traumatised.
The problem of delay
Even if the CICA’s eligibility criteria have been met and the claim is made within time, a further set of hurdles must be overcome.
The CICA are extremely slow. It is common for months or even years go by with no apparent progress being made with the claim. As an example, I am dealing with a CICA claim on behalf of a victim where the evidence was submitted over 2 ½ years ago. Apart from some standard letters requesting information which the CICA already has, no meaningful response has been forthcoming. I appreciate the CICA may have limited resources, but such long delays prevent victims from moving on. They are left ruminating on distressing experiences, unable to move forward with their lives.
If the CICA could just offer victims a rough timescale, then they would at least have something to aim for. Instead victims are left completely in the dark, wondering day after day whether there will be any news. The CICA would not necessarily need to be bound by their timescale; simply offering a rough idea of when there may be some news could make a huge positive difference to many people and allow them to put the matter to the back of their minds for a few months.
As one of my clients recently told me, “It is traumatic enough for us victims. After going through a grueling court case we just hope for some light at the end of the tunnel, but there is no closure. I am waking up every morning wondering if today will be the day there will be some news from the CICA. It is just wrong. They provide no updates and I am left in limbo not knowing if they have even looked properly at my case yet”.
When news is received from the CICA, it is often a standard letter requesting information that has already been provided. They also call for updated documents which are only necessary because there has been such a delay since the evidence was first submitted that it is now outdated. This process is frustrating and distressing for victims.
The problem of finding legal representation
The CICA does not make any contribution towards victim’s legal costs and Legal Aid is not available. This means victims have to deal with the legal process themselves unless they have the money to pay a solicitor or they can find a lawyer specialising in criminal injuries abuse claims who is willing to work on a no win, no fee basis.
For a scheme designed to be used by victims, it is not remotely user-friendly. Again, a familiar criticism is that the legal process itself results in victims being re-traumatised quite unnecessarily.
For instance, why does the CICA ask victims to give specific details of the abuse or assault they have suffered, when the CICA will obtain this information themselves from the Police? It isn’t quite so bad for victims who have a lawyer representing them as the lawyer can shield their client to some extent from the stress of dealing with the claim, but for victims of a crime of violence who have to do this themselves it can be extremely stressful.
I have also dealt with claims where the CICA has refused to investigate an aspect of an injury linked to the assault. If these individuals did not have a lawyer specialising in criminal injuries abuse claims who was able to fund specialist medical evidence their entitlement to compensation could have been severely prejudiced.
As one of my clients explains, “I was assaulted and left with life changing injuries. The claim has gone on and on, I do feel lucky to have a lawyer to deal with this for me. I could never had done this alone. I feel they have all the information they should need, but nothing seems to be enough for them.” In this case I obtained independent orthopaedic evidence to fully detail the injuries suffered and the effect these had on my client. If she had been pursuing the case herself, I suspect she would not have obtained justice as she simply did not have the means to obtain this evidence herself.
In another case I helped a victim appeal their CICA compensation offer, resulting in her award being increased from £16,500 to £181,000. She was of course delighted that I was able to help, but I fear that for every success like this, countless other victims who do not have access to specialist legal advice are experiencing hardship and not receiving fair recompense for the injuries they have suffered.
How we can help
We will continue to campaign and fight for the rights of victims of abuse and violent crime and lobby the government to take action to address these issues.
We offer victims access to our free legal helpline which they can call for guidance on making a CICA claim, pursuing an appeal and the availability of no win, no fee funding.