How victims' cash is cut: Adam Sage on the fight for fairer compensation after sexual attack

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The Independent Online
IN A gentle, cautious voice, Jane starts to recount the events of the autumn night in 1985 that changed her life. She tells how she was abducted outside her local pub, taken to a deserted wasteland and assaulted by three men.

There, she was severely beaten and remembers hearing the men discuss how they would dispose of her body: her next memory is of the intensive care unit at the south London hospital which treated her injuries.

It was an attack that should have warranted compensation of many thousands of pounds, according to Women Against Rape, the group supporting her. Instead, six years later, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board wrote to say that her money would be cut by half, citing two reasons for its decision: she had been drinking on the night of the assault and she was subsequently found guilty of a minor drugs offence.

She was given an interim award of pounds 3,000, but has still not been told what her final compensation will be. Jane's voice rises in anger as she talks of the board's ruling. 'What they are saying is that I was 50 per cent to blame.'

According to Women Against Rape, the award highlights the sort of discrimination often suffered by the victims of sexual assaults. Ruth Hall, of the group, said the board did not need to consider the question of whether Jane was drinking. 'What they are doing is making a moralistic judgment.'

She also condemns the board for citing the drugs offence as a reason for cutting compensation. The conviction was 'utterly irrelevant' to any assessment of Jane's injuries and, anyway, came after the attack, at a time when she had 'lost control of her life'.

Yet the decision was not only the result of human error, she believes, but of a system that is flawed. Guidelines given to the board's members say that they must take account of the 'conduct of the applicant before, during or after the events giving rise to the claim'. This can lead to sort of arbitrary and unjust offer made to Jane, Ms Hall says.

Prostitutes often suffer serious injuries and then receive low offers of compensation as a result of this guideline, according to Ms Hall. Earlier this year, a prostitute in London was who was severely beaten and assaulted was offered less than pounds 2,000.

The group drew up a 10-minute rule Bill - introduced into the House of Commons last month by the Labour MP, Harry Cohen - aiming to reform these aspects of the compensation scheme and seeking to overturn regulations that lead to reductions if victims delay in reporting crimes to the police. Delay, it is said, could be an indication of the gravity of an assault, warranting more money and not less.

Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, highlights the case of a woman in the Midlands who waited a week before reporting to the police that she had been raped, but was told more than a year later that she did not deserve any compensation.

On appeal, she was given pounds 5,000, which was reduced to pounds 3,000 as a result of the delay. The woman, who was black, said she had been harassed by the police and was reluctant to tell them of her ordeal.

Last month, the Home Office said it would review the compensation scheme in an attempt to speed up payments as more than half the awards still take at least a year to come through.

A spokesman said the board was 'generally and genuinely sympathetic to women in those circumstances. It is not an umsympathetic or inflexible scheme but it has to be as rational as it can.'

Not that these comments cut much ice with Jane. 'Being abducted is a terrible thing to happen to anyone,' she said. 'It never leaves you. I still barricade the bedroom door and the front door, and I still don't really socialise.'

The men were never caught and she says that she still lives in fear of them, a point seemingly ignored by the compensation scheme.

(Photograph omitted)