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Volume 87: debated on Friday 29 November 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement with regard to the payment of compensation to persons who have been wrongly convicted of criminal offences.

There is no statutory provision for the payment of compensation from public funds to persons charged with offences who are acquitted at trial or whose convictions are quashed on appeal, or to those granted free pardons by the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. Persons who have grounds for an action for unlawful arrest or malicious prosecution have a remedy in the civil courts against the person or authority responsible. For many years, however, it has been the practice for the Home Secretary, in exceptional circumstances, to authorise on application ex gratia payments from public funds to persons who have been detained in custody as a result of a wrongful conviction.In accordance with past practice, I have normally paid compensation on application to persons who have spent a period in custody and who receive a free pardon, or whose conviction is quashed by the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords following the reference of a case by me under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, or whose conviction is quashed by the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords following an appeal after the time normally allowed for such an appeal has lapsed. In future I shall be prepared to pay compensation to all such persons where this is required by our international obligations. The international convenant on civil and political rights [article 14.6] provides that:

"When a person has by a final decision been convicted of a criminal offence and when subsequently his conviction has been reversed, or he has been pardoned, on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law, unless it is proved that the non-disclosure of the unknown fact in time is wholly or partly attributable to him".

I remain prepared to pay compensation to people who do not fall within the terms of the preceding paragraph but who have spent a period in custody following a wrongful conviction or charge, where I am satisfied that it has resulted from serious default on the part of a member of a police force or of some other public authority.

There may be exceptional circumstances that justify compensation in cases outside these categories. In particular, facts may emerge at trial, or on appeal within time, that completely exonerate the accused person. I am prepared, in principle, to pay compensation to people who have spent a period in custody or have been imprisoned in cases such as this. I will not, however, be prepared to pay compensation simply because at the trial or an appeal the prosecution was unable to sustain the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in relation to the specific charge that was brought.

It has been the practice sice 1957 for the amount of compensation to be fixed on the advice and recommendation of an independent assessor who, in considering claims, applies principles analogous to those on which claims for damages arising from civil wrongs are settled. The procedure followed was described by the then Home Secretary in a written reply to a question in the House of Commons on 29 July 1976 at columns 328–330. Although successive Home Secretaries have always accepted the assessor's advice, they have not been bound to do so. In future, however, I shall regard any recommendation as to amount made by the assessor in accordance with those principles as binding upon me. I have appointed Mr. Michael Ogden QC as the assessor for England and Wales. He will also assess any case that arises in Northern Ireland, where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intends to follow similar practice.