Drink-drive payout could reach pounds 3m damages

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MORE THAN pounds 300,000 compensation has been paid to about 60 motorists who were wrongly convicted of drinking and driving after police tested their blood with swabs containing alcohol, it was revealed yesterday.

Up to 400 people may be entitled to damages which could cost the Home Offices much as pounds 3m in compensation. The payouts so far range from a few thousands pounds to pounds 25,000.

The testing fiasco is one of the worst contamination cases involving police equipment.

Solicitors representing about 70 people who have had their convictions quashed said yesterday that many of their clients have had their lives and businesses ruined by the mix-up.

The contamination took place in the Greater Manchester area between March 1987 and December 1988. It happened after police complained that the antiseptic swabs used to wipe over a motorist's arm before taking a blood sample were very old and had become too dry to use.

The police requested new swabs from the Home Office, but were sent wipes that unknowingly contained alcohol and could therefore have contaminated the blood samples. It is unclear whether the Home Office suppliers provided the wrong equipment or the police failed to ask for non-alcoholic wipes.

The Forensic Science Service discovered the mistake and all drivers found guilty during the 18-month period had their convictions quashed.

Greater Manchester police successfully defended a claim for compensation, but the Home Office admitted liability and set up an adjudicator who has authorised up to 40 payments in the past few months. Those who have received compensation include:

t Two people who attempted suicide after allegedly becoming depressed at the disgrace of being convicted of drinking and driving.

t A young man who was jailed for three months.

t Several people who had their photographs, names and addresses published in a local paper's "rogue's gallery".

t A man who owned a garage and went bust, partly because he was banned from driving.

t A person who spent a year having to cycle eight miles to a railway station to get to work.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that 58 awards had been made so far and that a further 30 were currently being considered.

A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester police added that the Home Office had supplied the faulty swabs and was paying compensation. But she refused to comment further.

Police and the Home Office are currently considering the introduction of roadside drug-testing equipment, although there is concern that kits are not sensitive enough accurately to detect illegal substances. The Manchester case illustrates another potential pitfall.