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Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977

Volume 385: debated on Thursday 14 July 1977

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5.25 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 21st June, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the proposal for this order was published in January. It attracted comments from professional and other interested bodies and was fully debated by the Northern Ireland Committee in another place. Having considered all these comments my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State has changed the originally proposed draft in several important respects.

The order has three main purposes. First, it will improve the handling of claims by allowing compensation to be paid, if acceptable, on the Secretary of State's determination, while preserving an applicant's right to challenge any decision of the Secretary of State in the courts, on appeal. Second, it will remove certain abuses or stop their possible growth, and ensure, as far as possible, that compensation is not paid to those who have themselves contributed to terrorism. Third, it will ensure a minimum level of compensation for widows and dependent children whose awards are affected by the necessary deduction of benefits.

The order follows a review of the Criminal Injuries to Persons (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, and the general effect of the order is to amend the provisions of the 1968 Act in the light of experience. I should like briefly to draw noble Lord's attention to the most important provisions contained in the order. Article 2 provides that in future an "unlawful association" will be defined to include not only proscribed organisations hut also others engaged in terrorism.

Article 3 provides that the Secretary of State will pay compensation on application, where it is justified under the order; at present he may pay only on the determination of a court. Article 5 requires the Secretary of State to take account of all relevant circumstances, including any negligence or provocation by the victim, and to reduce compensation by the amount of any pensions and other benefits payable. Article 6 applies an upper limit of twice the average industrial wage to compensation for pecuniary loss, unless the injury was caused by a terrorist organisation. Paragraph (3) provides that compensation will not be payable to a member of a terrorist association or to anyone who has been involved in acts of terrorism. Whether in fact the person concerned has been a terrorist in this sense may be a matter for the court to decide on appeal.

There may, however, be cases where this provision will clearly be unreasonably severe. Article 8 therefore allows the Secretary of State to make discretionary payments where he considers it in the public interest to do so. Paragraphs (4) and (5) of Article 6 deal with minimum payments of compensation. To prevent the proliferation of minor claims for nervous shock the Article provides that where a claim is made for pain and suffering arising from nervous shock it must be sufficiently serious to justify at least £1,000 compensation. The existing £50 minimum for all claims has been up-dated to £150 in line with changes in the value of money and the present minimum of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme in Great Britain. Article 6 also provides that the Secretary of State may withhold payment of compensation until an applicant has given all reasonable help to the police towards identifying and apprehending the offender.

Article 8 enables the Secretary of State to make discretionary payments to widows and dependent children whose compensation has been reduced by the deduction of pensions and other benefits: to bring the amounts payable in such circumstances up to a maximum of £5,000 for a widow and £500 for each child. Article 15 is another new provision. It allows applicants, who feel after six months that they have given the Secretary of State enough information and enough time to determine the claim, the right to seek a declaration to that effect from the county court. If the court gives a declaration, then the Secretary of State must determine the claim within the next two months or the applicant will be able to have it determined by the court. This is an important order, and I have only attempted to draw attention to the most significant provisions contained in it. I should, of course, be happy to do my best to answer any questions that noble Lords have on any part of the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 21st June, be approved.—( Lord Melchett.)

I warmly welcome the order because it will end, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has explained, the possibility of payment of compensation for criminal injuries to terrorists and to anyone connected with terrorism. That is something which has seemed to be not only totally unfair but burdensome to the British taxpayer. The order is most timely and will be widely welcomed.

However, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, could tell me the amount which has already been paid out in criminal injury cases during the present troubled years in Northern Ireland and how many cases are pending. I know that the sums involved for payment out for criminal injuries run into many tens of millions of pounds. If the noble Lord has the statistics it would be interesting to know the amount to date.

Will legal aid be available for those who need to approach the court, either perhaps to appeal if a claim for criminal injuries is refused by the Secretary of State under the new procedure, or for any other reason? There is the provision for approach to the county court under Article 16, as the noble Lord explained. There is also the occasion which could arise if a victim dies. I understand that his dependants may claim for expenses incurred in connection with the victim's injury though his claim for compensation does not pass to his estate. Once again this would presumably mean approaching the court and, I imagine, being legally represented.

It must surely be right to deal with cases of nervous shock in the way that the order does; namely, there must be a minimum claim for £1,000 compensation if you are going to be able to get a nervous shock claim paid out. It was made clear in another place by the noble Lord's colleagues that many of these claims now had become a way of getting small sums of money which, in total, run into very large sums of money, and this was a practice which had to be stopped.

I should like to say—and this is an experience which the noble Lord, who has been in Northern Ireland now for such a considerable length of time, must have had on many occasions—that I remember very well in, I think it was, 1973 there was a line of cottages in a small village on the North Antrim coast which was blown up one weekend. It was I who had to go and see what damage had been done. The last four or five of the cottages had been reduced to rubble and the rest of the cottages, three or four in number, remained standing.

Somewhat naturally, as I am sure the noble Lord would have done, I went to the house—they were all semi-detached houses—which was nearest to the cottages which had been destroyed. I knocked on the door. The house was still standing but there were no windows there at all and a considerable amount of damage was done. An elderly lady came to the door. I asked her how she was and she said that she was all right. We both looked at the appalling scene to the right of her house and agreed what a terrible thing it was, and began to talk of this and that. Then quite suddenly, without any warning, she burst into tears, and one realised then the really appalling shock which there is for perfectly ordinary people living in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, when I say that I welcome the fact that the order deals in the way that it does with nervous shock, I am in no way saying that I do not think that the ordinary good hearted people in Northern Ireland should be compensated for the terrible time they have gone through, and the way the order deals with this will provide for that. I am strongly in favour of the way that this order has been drafted. It does what has been long overdue; namely, prevent payments being made out to terrorists for injuries to themselves. Otherwise it deals very fairly with the other matters with which it is concerned, and I warmly welcome and support the order.

My Lords, I am again grateful for the noble Lord's support. I entirely agree with everything he said about nervous shock. It is true that the large amount of money that has been paid out up to now in compensation has been disproportionately composed of very small sums for minor nervous shock, but nevertheless it is important to remember the very serious effect that this can have on some people. The order, it is now generally felt, strikes the right balance in making compensation of £1,000 or more available to those people who have suffered very seriously in that way, but preventing the proliferation of very small minor claims, of which there were an increasingly large number.

The noble Lord asked me how many claims and what sum of money had been paid out. Up to the end of May 34,633 claims had been received under the Criminal Injuries to Persons (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, of which 20,859—somewhat over half—had been settled. Compensation totaling £28,273,849 had been paid out. The noble Lord can see that very considerable sums of money are involved.

The noble Lord asked me about legal aid for those persons who wish to approach the county court either on appeal or to seek determination under Article 15 of the order. Legal aid is available for those who take criminal injury claims to court on appeal under this order, subject to the normal criteria for eligibility for legal aid. In addition, I am glad to say that legal assistance up to £25 will also be available to allow an injured person to consult a solicitor about making a claim, even if it does not go to court, under the Draft Legal Aid, Advice and Assistance (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which I think your Lordships' House will be debating next week and which I hope will shortly become law. That will be an important extension of the availability of legal advice to Northern Ireland which of course is already available in this country. Once again, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.