A crime may just be the beginning of your ordeal

Compensation for injury may be even more elusive if the Government's plans become law

Amy was just yards from her home when she was dragged into the bushes, raped at knifepoint and indecently assaulted several times with a screwdriver. The experience left her so traumatised that she could not bring herself to report the attack to the police for six weeks.

She had no idea of the price she would have to pay for the delay or how long she would have to fight to win compensation for her ordeal.

However, her case highlights concern over the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board's use of its discretion to withhold or reduce awards to victims and fears for future decisions under the Government's planned changes to the scheme.

Two months after she was raped in April 1991, Amy (not her real name) was advised to claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

"I was warned that the board might reduce the award because I had not reported the rape to police straight away," she remembers.

She was still waiting to hear about her claim in November 1991, when her attacker, who she had picked out from an identity parade, was freed by magistrates at the committal hearing.

Nine months later, she received a letter from the board saying it had decided to withhold compensation completely because she had let the trail get "well and truly cold" before reporting the attack.

The board member making the decision said: "Rape is a monstrous crime and no-one could be other than revolted at the applicant's description of the attack upon her." However, the board attached great importance to prompt reporting of all assaults to the police. "If the victim fails to report the matter, this simply encourages violent criminals," he concluded.

When her appeal to the Board in April 1993 was rejected on the same grounds, Amy, who has a teenage daughter, was furious. "I remember wishing at the time that the man had killed me, because surely being dead was better than the way I felt then," she says.

"To find I was being blamed for being unable to report it to the police immediately was utterly horrendous. I couldn't free myself from the feeling that the man who attacked me was controlling my life - not just for the half an hour when I was lying on the ground but for every single hour of every day since it happened.

"If the board had said 'we would have given you x but because you didn't report it immediately we are going to give you y', I would have been quite happy.

"But to get nothing... I thought 'that won't do'," said Amy, 41, a blunt, no-nonsense civil servant from Manchester.

In March, Amy, who had legal aid, won an important victory when a High Court judge ruled the board must reconsider her claim. The board tried to appeal but failed.

After another wait of about three months, Amy received a "substantial" offer from the board. Although no reasons were given explaining the amount, Amy has decided to accept it.

Her solicitor, Paul Brimelow, of Manchester-based Wacks Caller, said they had received several calls for copies of the judgment from others wanting to challenge board decisions.

"To our knowledge, it was the first time a rape victim has successfully challenged a decision by the board in the High Court. We hope it will give other victims the confidence to do the same if they feel they may have been unfairly treated," he says.

In the year to May 1994, the board resolved 65,000 claims, paying out pounds 165.1m in compensation. There were 15,192 appeals.

However, the system for compensation is in a state of flux after the Government introduced a tariff-based scheme with fixed amounts for each injury. It has been ruled unlawful by the House of Lords.

Andrew Dismore, a solicitor, took the case to the Lords on behalf of 10 trade unions. He said the revised Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill now going through Parliament remained inflexible and unable to treat victims as individuals.

Under the revised tariff scheme, the new body would still have the discretion to withhold or reduce compensation in cases such as failing to report the crime to police. However, decisions would be taken by civil servants rather than senior lawyers.

Dismore says: "There has to be that discretion, but you have to decide where the line is to be drawn.

"Under the new scheme, these decisions will be taken by relatively junior civil servants with no legal training whatsoever. They will just be number- crunchers. I can envisage a lot more cases being knocked back because of rules being applied too rigidly.

"There will still be an appeal panel but the rights of appeal will be severely curtailed."

Unlike Dismore, the charity Victim Support welcomes the tariff system for the very reason that it does limit subjectivity, which it believes has sometimes unfairly influenced the amounts awarded.

However, the charity was also very concerned that those making decisions on whether to withhold or reduce an award should be trained in the impact of crime on victims, especially in sex cases.

According to Alex McDonnell, co-ordinator of Victim Support in Gateshead: "You get used to the names of the board members making the awards. Some are very good, some go very much by the book and some soon make you realise you will have to appeal.

"On the whole, the board is reasonably fair, but then they make a decision which makes you despair."

She said they were about to appeal to the board over its decision to refuse compensation to a woman who had been working alone in a chip shop when she noticed a man pulling a gun from his overcoat pocket. She called police and managed to keep him in the shop until armed officers arrived. When she was told the gun had been real and loaded, she "freaked out" at the danger she had been in and needed psychiatric help.

The board can make an award for accidental injury if the person took a justifiable exceptional risk at the time of the incident, but in this case, McDonnell says, the board member decided her trauma had not been attributable to a crime of violence.

''She could have been shot, but she did her duty - she could have just let him wander off into the night and then called the police."

The board will not comment on individual cases. The Home Office says the revised scheme is intended to be simpler while keeping administration costs down.

Amy's successful challenge in the High Court has helped her to regain control over her life. While she feels the money awarded is somehow "tainted" because of its origin in her rape, it is, finally, tangible recognition of her ordeal.

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