The Supreme Court’s ruling that victims of miscarriages of justice can only claim compensation if they can prove their innocence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is a blow to the idea of justice, according to campaigners.
The Supreme Court this morning ruled against two men who spent a total of 24 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit and who were denied compensation by the Ministry of Justice.
The pair were denied compensation under legislation introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.
The two men had argued that the new scheme was not compatible with the presumption of innocence guaranteed under Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.
Victor Nealon’s conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2013 after spending 17 years in prison for attempted rape because a DNA test pointed to another attacker. He was left homeless, suffering from post-traumatic stress and unable to work as a result of his wrongful conviction.
Sam Hallam became one of Britain’s youngest miscarriage of justice victims when, at 17 years of age, he was convicted of murder after a trainee chef was stabbed during a fight in London. Hallam spent seven years in prison.
The Coalition Government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 amended the statutory scheme for compensation and, now, in order to be eligible, they would have to be able to demonstrate their innocence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It is a hurdle that is almost impossible to surmount in the absence of DNA evidence – and not even then in the case of Nealon.
Campaigners had hoped that today’s judgment was an opportunity for the highest court in the land to address the lack of care and support provided for the wrongly convicted. According to the Royal Court of Justice’s miscarriage of justice support service, one-third of its clients found themselves homeless after they left the Court of Appeal.
However, in a majority ruling of five to two, the Supreme Court dismissed such arguments.
Speaking this morning, Emily Bolton, legal director of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, said that the Supreme Court was “wrong not to declare this shameful law incompatible with the presumption of innocence”.
“Miscarriages of justice destroy lives,” she said. “Victims can never be truly ‘compensated’, but the current law needs to be scrapped. The Government should act to ensure all miscarriage of justice victims get the apologies they deserve, as well as the support they need to help rebuild their lives.”
Daniel Machover, head of civil law at Hickman and Rose solicitors, said that the ruling meant that “victims of long-running and egregious miscarriages of justice” were “victimised twice over” – once by the court that found them guilty and a second time by the Government.
“This decision means someone seeking compensation for a miscarriage of justice must, in effect, themselves come up with new facts which not only fatally undermine the miscarriage of justice, but conclusively prove their innocence,” Machover said. “This can be extremely difficult, indeed all too often impossible, to do. In making this decision the Supreme Court has damaged the public trust in the judiciary in this important area of law in upholding the rights of those such as Andrew Adams.”
The 2014 change in the law has almost killed off compensation payouts.
According to the human rights group JUSTICE, which intervened in the case, in the past five years, only five people have received compensation from the MoJ after having their convictions overturned and not a single person last year. By contrast, between 1999 and 2004, there were 162 successful applications.
Victor Nealon left HMP Wakefield in December 2013 with just three hours’ notice, £46 in his pocket and a train ticket to Shrewsbury. He spent 17 years in prison. He could have been released after seven years, but was rejected for parole because he refused to accept guilt or undergo rehabilitation to address his ‘crime’.
“It is one thing to lose your freedom, family, friends, job and money, but it’s quite another thing to be told in prison that, unless you confess to the crime, you’ll never ever be released,” he told me in 2015. “I was told I had no prospect for release. I continued to maintain my innocence for 17 years.”
Nealon is now suing West Mercia Police claiming that investigating officers misled the Crown Prosecution Service and the miscarriage of justice watchdog the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) over the strength of the case against him by stating that the victim’s clothes had been tested and nothing of note had been found.
In the case of Sam Hallam, the CCRC were highly critical of the police investigation, saying that the office in charge had “no control” and his record-keeping was “a disaster”. There was no forensic evidence linking Hallam to the murder, no CCTV, plus there was a shocking failure in disclosure. The police had Hallam’s mobile phone with photos of him in a pub with his father earlier in the evening. Thames Valley Police, instructed by the CCRC to investigate the case, spoke to 37 separate witnesses at the busy scene and not a single one put Sam Hallam there. Tragically, his father took his life whilst he was in prison because he blamed himself for his son’s predicament.
Neither man received an apology nor an acknowledgment of their innocence from the Court of Appeal – in fact, it was suggested that Hallam, a teenager, was responsible for his own fate because of his “dysfunctional lifestyle”.
I interviewed Hallam in 2015 with his then girlfriend Renee.
“There has to be some recognition of what happened,” she told me. “Everyone just shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘well, you’re out now. You should just be happy.’”
Jon Robins is a freelance journalist. He edits www.thejusticegap.com. His latest book ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Crisis In Our Justice System’ is published by Biteback.