We can prevent victims suffering another injustice

VICTIMS of sexual abuse are often receiving "laughably low" levels of criminal injuries compensation for their harrowing ordeals, according to a leading solicitor. Paul Brown, principal solicitor at the Legal Services Agency (LSA), has called for the tariff levels used by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) to be reviewed across the board - and particularly for abused children, and adults who have suffered sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Brown, who heads the LSA's Criminal Injuries Compensation Unit, says the tariffs - which were calculated based on average pay-outs in the early 1990s and last reviewed in 2001 - started from a low base rate but should have risen substantially, even if they had only gone up in line with inflation.

Speaking ahead of the LSA's conference, "Getting Compensation for Victims of Violence: Principles, Practice and Problems" being held in Glasgow today, Brown reckons the tariffs should now be updated.

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"The sexual abuse tariffs are sometimes laughably low," he says. "Take disabling mental illness lasting up to 28 weeks - that's six months of being disabled emotionally - and that's only 2,500.

"Even in 2001, that wasn't very much. It is certainly not a very strong expression of social solidarity or sympathy, which is what the philosophy of the scheme is."

The current tariff applies to more than 400 injuries linked to 25 compensation levels, starting at 1,000 and rising to 250,000. According to CICA's latest annual report, between 2005 and 2006 the authority made 33,792 financial awards, paying out a total of 165.5 million with an average of 4,898.

Brown adds child victims, and adults with either low or no earnings, also lost out because they were not eligible for additional compensation for wage loss.

"If somebody is working or could be working, they should be able to get wage loss," he says. "For people who are working or could be working, it could be quite substantial. But for someone who is a child or wasn't working because they were physically or mentally disabled already, these tariff levels are pretty derisory. All these systems are based on the common law idea that the more that you lose, the more you get, which is wage loss. There is a cap, but if you are an accountant who can't work you get an awful lot more than if you are a child with the same injury but wasn't working in the first place."

Brown, who was one of the first solicitors to submit claims to CICA on behalf of child victims in the 1980s, also expressed concern that the system does not recognise their special needs. He says there are difficulties in showing that children have suffered mental harm as a result of abuse, as they are rarely formally assessed and diagnosed by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, as the scheme requires.

"If a child has a mental injury, it has to be proven by a psychiatric or psychological diagnosis," he says. "Most children don't see psychiatrists or clinical psychologists, even if they have a bad mental injury, because they are cared for by social workers and counsellors. Getting even these levels [of compensation] is easier said than done for children."

Brown adds there are also challenges in cases of domestic abuse, with problems arising from delays in reporting incidents to the police. He says: "The main problem is the same requirements there are for all criminal injuries compensation claims generally, which is to report things to the police.

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"Sometimes it takes a long time to be reported to the police, and the issue you then have is should the award be made for the last incident reported to the police or the whole lot, even though it may have taken years for it to be reported?

"Even if there is no doubt the incident took place, they sometimes are not keen on making awards just because it has not been reported to the police because that is a requirement of the whole scheme - things must be reported to the police in reasonable time."

He adds many victims of domestic abuse are unable to claim any compensation, even if there has been a conviction, because the incidents took place before 1979.

But while the scheme is not without its problems for particular groups of claimants, and has been criticised by victims of the London bombings, Brown stressed it is a good system, which should be protected.

"Some people do get treated well and even generously which is why I am a supporter of the scheme," he says. "It needs to be updated, but I wouldn't have said it has major flaws - on the contrary, it is a very good scheme. It needs to be protected. People need to express their enthusiasm and appreciation of it because it has a lot of strong points."

Brown hopes today's conference will inform the debate surrounding the future of the compensation scheme. Other speakers will include Roger Goodier, chair of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeal Panel, barrister Clare Padley, and Julie Smith, a solicitor with Castlemilk Law Centre, who works with women and children who have been the victims of domestic abuse, rape or assault. CICA will also give a presentation on internal reforms.

A spokesman for the CICA says that, while the tariff levels are a matter for the Home Office, it has been working to improve its internal operations for the benefit of applicants.

"We have undertaken a couple of reviews in the last year into our case-working process and also our customer service," he says. "That has developed into a new way of case-working which we are currently testing. Our key criteria are to provide a faster, fairer service to people who apply for compensation."

• For more information about the Legal Services Agency, visit www.lsa.org.uk For details on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, see www.cica.gov.uk

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