Two men wrongly jailed for the murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater were ordered yesterday to pay "board and lodgings" for the 18 years they were in prison. In a ruling condemned as "sick" by prison campaigners, the Court of Appeal agreed with a Home Office-appointed assessor that the cousins Michael and Vincent Hickey should lose a quarter of loss-of-earnings compensation for their free food and accommodation inside.
The verdict means the Hickeys, victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in post-war Britain, will lose £60,000 each, about £60 for each week they were locked up.
In a third case, the court ruled that Michael O'Brien, another wrongly convicted man, should pay his "saved living expenses" for the 11 years he spent in prison after he was convicted of the murder of a Cardiff newsagent.
A lawyer for the Hickeys, who endured repeated intimidation and beatings from fellow prisoners, said they were outraged by the "palpably unfair" ruling.
The Hickeys were jailed in 1979, with James Robinson and Patrick Molloy, after they were convicted of killing 13-year-old Carl at Yew Tree Farm, Wordsley, West Midlands, a year earlier. The boy died from a shotgun blast in a break-in at the farm.
During a 25-day trial at Stafford Crown Court, the Crown's case hinged on a "confession" from Mr Molloy, fraudulently obtained by police who showed him a fabricated confession from Vincent Hickey. Molloy died in prison aged 53.
After a long campaign for justice, involving a 144-day hunger strike by one of the cousins, the "Bridgewater Three" were freed in 1997 when the Court of Appeal quashed their convictions. In 1998 the CPS said that none of the seven police officers alleged to have made up evidence would be prosecuted.
Michael Hickey, 42, was awarded £990,000 compensation and Vincent Hickey, 49, £506,220 by the Home Office's independent assessor, Lord Brennan QC, who said living expenses should be taken off. A High Court judge, Mr Justice Maurice Kay, ruled last April that the deductions were wrong but Lord Brennan appealed, saying his decision was "lawful and reasonable".
Yesterday the Home Office stressed that the decision to deduct money for lodging lay with the assessor and did not set a precedent for other cases.
Susie Labinjoh, solicitor for the Hickeys, said her clients were "extremely disappointed". She said that while in prison, the cousins had the stigma of being known as child killers and were subjected to appalling conditions, including their food being regularly adulterated with phlegm and glass.
Ms Labinjoh said: "They could not comprehend how anyone aware of the circumstances of their imprisonment could suggest that they profited from it in any way."
Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook, said: "It has to be the sickest of all sick jokes. Can you imagine Terry Waite getting a bill for the living expenses he saved during his five years wrongly held in the Lebanon?"