Injustice that lets prisoners cash in while victims are short-changed
HOLIDAY camp prisons reached new heights of absurdity after one of them started offering fly-fishing classes to its inmates.
Now denizens of the penal estate — or part of it — are being encouraged to seek compensation for lengthy spells of incarceration.
It’s the natural apotheosis of a system that long ago lost any punitive dimension in favour of expensive mollycoddling at public expense.
The latest extraordinary development is that inmates on remand could be about to be richly rewarded for their inconvenience, owing to Covid.
There’s a glut of unresolved cases thanks to the pandemic, and some experts believe it could take up to a decade to clear.
As a result, there are plenty of stories about remand prisoners waiting for a couple of years to be tried — what better way to kill the time than suing the Crown Office?
Prosecutors have raised the alarm over the prospect of civil action by remand prisoners languishing in their cells for months on end.
It turned out to be a prescient warning because, as the Mail revealed yesterday, lawyers are already taking soundings over the possibility of launching a legal fight.
Naturally, the hard-pressed taxpayer would pick up the bill, and it could be up to £180,000 per prisoner in the worst cases.
A compensation culture is now so deeply ingrained in our society that there’s sure to be a clamour among bored inmates, looking for some cash from the public purse.
In one notable previous case, a prisoner — a child rapist, in fact — sued because he was bored in his cell, which you might have thought was an unavoidable consequence of being jailed.
Legal aid has taken a sizeable hit over the years over all manner of grievances, including a thug who was handed more than £5,000 after claiming that a sniffer dog indicated drugs might be in his mail — he said it was a human rights breach (and lost).
For those on remand, awaiting the judgment of the court, it’s far easier to see why they might be tempted to sue, and frankly in a lot of cases they might have a point.
Justice delayed, after all, is justice denied, and there are a lot of delays, meaning some trials may have to be abandoned due to the passage of time since the original allegations were made.
Witnesses are more likely to forget what they saw, and in one case three alleged victims died while waiting for the trial of a bogus workman said to have stolen more than £170,000.
Whether victims will be entitled to compensation is a different matter, but then their needs usually come a distant second to those of criminals, or suspected criminals, with enterprising solicitors.
Mind you, people accused of a crime tend to be remanded because bail has been denied, so there’s clearly a fear that they could reoffend, or disappear, if they weren’t sent to jail, and many will be recidivists.
Compensating convicts for their time behind bars might be harder to swallow than for first-time offenders desperate to prove their innocence in court.
Whether there will be a jury when they get there is open to doubt as there are plans to scrap them in rape cases, on the grounds that jurors can’t be trusted to be dispassionate and rational when it comes to alleged sex crime.
Some of them have inappropriately old-fashioned views, the argument goes, so the feeling is that judges are better-placed to sit alone, without juries, and come to a more informed view, though is it just possible that even some judges have old-fashioned views? Maybe we’ll find out if this proposal gains approval…
In any event, courts are stuck with a big backlog of cases, and jurors are having to watch proceedings remotely from cineplexes — which until recently weren’t exactly having to turn customers away, so were glad of the business.
This meant socially-distanced trials could go ahead, even though in the outside world, apart from NHS settings, distancing is no longer required.
Coronavirus has been deployed as an explanation or excuse for the virtual paralysis of large swathes of the public sector — sometimes valid but often not so valid.
But it’s important to remember, however much ministers want us to forget, that courts were in crisis before the virus arrived on our shores.
The pandemic added to existing backlogs, and a programme of court closures instigated by the SNP meant the system was struggling to cope many years pre-Covid.
A parallel argument applies to the NHS, where the virus has led to a backlog of operations due to postponed or cancelled procedures, while at the same time exhausted medics have had to contend with Omicron, and indeed carrying out the latest phase of mass vaccination.
Yet how many times have we heard in the past that the NHS was facing its toughest ever winter?
NHS crises, including crippling staff shortages, weren’t exactly uncommon before coronavirus came along, reducing its resilience when disaster struck in March 2020.
Every available penny should be channelled towards rebuilding the economy and closing the attainment gap, nearly eight years after Nicola Sturgeon vowed to do so (it’s now widened to record levels, thanks to — you guessed it — Covid).
They have enough to keep them busy with a rise in violent and sexual crime, not to mention an increase in online child sex crime during lockdown, as we reported yesterday.
Millions have already flowed out of public coffers in pay-outs to innocent men caught up in the Rangers fraud fiasco, who successfully sued for malicious prosecution.
Now more of our cash could be used to line the pockets of prisoners or their lawyers, pursuing cases in courts that should be devoting all of their precious time to wading through the quagmire of outstanding trials.
The threat of a flood of compensation claims from remand prisoners is symptomatic of chronic mismanagement of courts by a government that for the last 15 years has managed only cack-handed justice reform with either negligible or non-existent impact (where it hasn’t been entirely retrograde).
Justice Secretary Keith Brown’s profile is so low that the average MSP could be forgiven for not being able to pick him out of a line-up, let alone the average voter, but surely he can’t keep his head buried in the sand for much longer — can he?
The world of the courts is rooted in the past, though not quite so much as it used to be — the virus caused carnage, but it also forced hi-tech changes such as cinema-based juries.
It’s slow-moving and governed by arcane procedures that remain a mystery to the layman. But how shameful that one of our most important public services should be allowed to fall into such a steep decline that prisoners are set to cash in on Covid chaos — while victims are short-changed once again.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 18, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant