The thorny issue of compensation for those falsely convicted of crime has generated a heated debate and much beating of the chest in the tabloids. I refer to two recent high profile cases exercising their collective wisdom, namely Barrie George and Colin Stagg. The case of Barrie George is known to one and all, acquitted of the murder of Jill Dando after two trials and two appeals and eight years in prison, and Colin Stagg, arrested and charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell but never convicted. In Barrie’s case, he is claiming a seven figure sum by way of compensation, and Stagg has been awarded £706,000.

The general reaction in the Press has been one of outrage, based on the specious assumption that both men were actually guilty, and that the due process of law has been thwarted.

This perverse way of thinking springs from two obvious misconceptions:

  1. The police are hardly likely to arrest, charge and prosecute an innocent man, and besides, his eyes are too close together, his eyebrows meet in the middle and he looks guilty.

  1. Trial by jury is a lottery, and if the guilty man’s advocate has a silver tongue and a way with the jury, there is scope for pulling the wool over their eyes and a miscarriage of justice.

In Barrie’s case, he falls into both categories. In Stagg’s case, just the first, as he was never tried.

It really boils down to a simple question: if a prosecution, even one brought in good faith, results in an accused being falsely imprisoned or persecuted in some other unacceptable way, should he be entitled to reasonable compensation? And if so, how should that compensation be calculated? What price do we put on freedom? Eight years’ loss of liberty in the case of Barrie George is a high price to pay for a miscarriage of justice, so those of us who believe in a fair and civilised society, should be prepared to pay a high price in return.

On a different note, and for those of you burdened by the credit crunch and thinking of getting away from it all in one of our delightful seaside resorts, I bring good news of sorts. The Divisional Court has just ruled that escaping sewage from pipes maintained by a statutory undertaker is controlled waste within the meaning of section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so when you’re surrounded by brown sludge and a strong and unpleasant odour stinging your nostrils, draw comfort from the fact that their lordships have not been idle on your behalf.

In reaching their decision, their lordships referred to the European Court’s decision in May of last year, which made clear that escaping waste water was in principle “waste” within Article 1 of Council Directive 75/442/EEC, as amended by Council Directive 91/156/EEC, and Council Directive 91/271/EEC concerning urban waste water treatment, but left open the issue whether it was covered by other domestic legislation so as to be excluded under Article 2 of Directive 75/442/EEC. Make of that what you will, but I thought you might be interested.

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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