Victims of an unequal system

On 1 April, a new compensation scheme for victims of violent crime came into force. The Government says the new scheme, which is based on set tariffs for each type of injury, will speed up the process of compensation and make it more equitable.

Victim Support fears that the motive behind the scheme may be cost-cutting rather than efficiency and fairness and that many victims will receive considerably less compensation as a result.

Of course, no compensation, however large, can ever repair the damage caused to victims of violent crime. For the majority of victims, compensation is still a significant gesture that serves to reassure them that they live in an orderly world where right and wrong are recognised.

It is often the only way in which the criminal justice system – which concentrates most of its efforts on the offender – offers any recognition to victims of the harm they have suffered.

The original Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, which was based on common law damages and individual assessments of applications, was too slow and complex. And some complained that decisions about whether to award compensation seemed to be unfairly based on subjective judgement. It was therefore not surprising that Victim Support welcomed the Government's announcement in 1993 that the scheme was to be scrapped and a new one, based on published tariffs, be established in its place. We were deeply concerned, however, about the provisions of the new scheme, which was introduced in April 1994.

Our concerns included the fact that victims would no longer have access to loss of earnings if they could not work as a result of the crime, that the set tariffs for sexual violence seemed extremely low and that people who suffered multiple injuries were likely to receive considerably less than they had in the past.

ln April 1995, the Government was forced to withdraw the tariff scheme following a House of Lords ruling that the way in which it was introduced was unlawful. The original common law scheme was temporarily reintroduced while a Bill was passed through Parliament to give the Government statutory backing for a revised tariff scheme, which came into force on 1 April.

There is no doubt that the new tariff scheme is an improvement on the one introduced in 1994. Victims can now claim for loss of earnings, though only if they are off work for more than 28 weeks.

But we are concerned that victims will still be far worse off in future. The tariffs for sexual crimes have been expanded but remain inexplicably low. A child who is sexually assaulted may be awarded as little as £1,000, less than an adult with a dislocated finger. The maximum compensation for someone who has been raped repeatedly by more than one attacker is £17,500. Many of the tariffs in the new scheme are at the same level as those introduced in the 1994 scheme and there is no protection within it to ensure they will increase in line with inflation in the future.

Home Office estimates suggest that, under the old common law scheme, spending on compensation would have been £500 million by the turn of the century. Under the new scheme, it will be £260 million. This is out of a criminal justice budget that currently exceeds £10 billion.

This Government has, in many ways, worked hard to ensure that the needs and rights of victims are recognised within the criminal justice system, for which it deserves much credit.

However, the cut in compensation confirms that the priority accorded to victims is still too low and that the attitudes towards them are inconsistent.