Criminals' right to sue 'fundamental', say reform groups

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A criminal's ability to sue is a fundamental human right that needs protecting in the courts, civil liberties groups said yesterday.

A criminal's ability to sue is a fundamental human right that needs protecting in the courts, civil liberties groups said yesterday.

Their comments follow action taken by the Law Commission, which recommended changes in the law to make it easier for criminals to claim damages when they are injured committing their crimes.

Deborah Clark, director of public affairs at Liberty – a civil rights group – said the courts had defined too narrowly what the rights of criminals were.

Frances Crook, director of the penal reform group the Howard League, said: "We are moving towards the situation which exists in many American states, where anyone who has committed an offence is barred from voting in elections."

She added: "The response to the criminal should be appropriate to the offence and should not preclude compensation."

Both groups welcomed the Law Commission's preliminary conclusion that judges needed to be restricted to limited principles when barring criminals' claims for compensation for injuries suffered while committing their crimes.

But Judge Gerald Butler, a retired Crown Court judge, said the Law Commission's recommendations would "fly in the face of public opinion" if it led to extending the right of the criminal to sue.

The Law Commission's preliminary findings have implications for cases such as that of the family of the burglar killed by Tony Martin. Relatives of Fred Barras are preparing a compensation claim and will have a better chance of success if the law is changed to make clear to judges they can't throw out cases just because they are brought by criminals who are injured while going about their illegal activities.

A spokesman for Victims Support, a campaign group that acts for victims of crime, said this was a complex issue as the rights of both victims had to be taken into account. But he said it was important for the courts to be "non-judgmental".

The Law Commission saidthere was a danger the flawed reasoning applying to the doctrine "crime must not pay" might be used by judges to reject genuine claims by criminals.

The commissioners quote Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC and David Pannick QC in their book, Human Rights Law and Practice, to support their argument that the arbitrary way in which the law is applied may be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

During discussions with interested parties, the commissioners were told there might be a case for abolishing the "illegality defence" altogether, so a criminal would never be barred from claiming damages simply because he had committed a crime.

The Law Commission does not accept this view but asks for more detailed responses on this and all its findings before September 28.