When money is the only way to say sorry

Ordinary people seek compensation when what they really want is an apology but cannot see a way of obtaining it
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The Independent Online

Misogyny, meanness or both? I am still trying to work out what lies behind the refusal of the Home Office to pay compensation to Angela Cannings, who was wrongfully convicted of killing two of her children. Mrs Cannings not only spent 18 months in prison for crimes she did not commit; she had to live apart from her family in the run-up to her trial and was terrified for a time that her surviving child would be taken into care. Her conviction was overturned in December 2003 because the case against her relied on the now-discredited evidence of the paediatrician and expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadow.

Misogyny, meanness or both? I am still trying to work out what lies behind the refusal of the Home Office to pay compensation to Angela Cannings, who was wrongfully convicted of killing two of her children. Mrs Cannings not only spent 18 months in prison for crimes she did not commit; she had to live apart from her family in the run-up to her trial and was terrified for a time that her surviving child would be taken into care. Her conviction was overturned in December 2003 because the case against her relied on the now-discredited evidence of the paediatrician and expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadow.

But while Mrs Cannings' name has been cleared, she has now been told that she will not receive a penny for the ordeal she went through at the hands of the criminal justice system. She had hoped to use the money to pay off the mortgage on the house in Devon which she shares with her husband, Terry, and her eight-year-old daughter, and where she is trying to rebuild her shattered life.

Mrs Cannings, who is now 41, plans to appeal against the decision. "It's unbelievable", she said earlier this week. "It's not just about the money. It's about acknowledging that someone's mistakes devastated our lives."

In a climate where the "compensation culture" is often cited as evidence of mercenary attitudes, as well as supposedly frightening professional experts - especially doctors and lawyers - into making unnecessarily conservative decisions, Mrs Cannings' response raises important questions. Looked at in isolation, the decision to deny her compensation may reflect nothing more than a desire by the Home Office to save taxpayers' money, which has already had to be spent on a review of nearly 300 similar cases as a direct result of her successful appeal and those of two other women, Sally Clark and Trupti Patel.

Cases going back a decade have had to be re-examined and so far 28 people have had their cases referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, although only six have asked to have their convictions further referred to the Court of Appeal. Additionally, new guidelines have been issued, which say that prosecutions should not be brought in cases where there is a dispute between medical experts about the cause of death and where there is no other compelling evidence.

I don't suppose that Mrs Cannings, Mrs Clark or Mrs Patel ever wanted to become a cause célèbre or bring about a significant change to the criminal justice system, but that is effectively what they have done. In the circumstances, it would be difficult to overestimate the degree of embarrassment caused to the Home Office by their cases, which have exposed deep-seated misogynist assumptions about mothers, or to avoid the suspicion that the refusal to pay compensation to Mrs Cannings suggests a continuing mean-spirited attitude to women who find themselves in her position.

Despite the overturning of all three womens' convictions, there is no doubt that some people persist in believing that a mother who sees more than one child die in unexplained circumstances must have had a hand in their deaths. This was in effect Meadow's position, leading him to construct a theory, now discredited, that some women deliberately harm their children in order to draw attention to themselves.

At her trial, Mrs Cannings was sentenced to life imprisonment after she was found guilty of smothering two of her babies, seven-week-old Jason in 1991 and 18-week-old Matthew in 1999. Her first child, Gemma, died from sudden infant death syndrome (Sids) in 1989 and she always maintained that the condition was also responsible for the deaths of Jason and Matthew.

These events might have been regarded as sufficiently tragic in themselves but she was tormented in prison by other inmates, who notoriously operate a crude system of morality that sanctions verbal and even physical assaults on people convicted of harming children.

Women are often even more judgemental than men where children are concerned, swift to cast bereaved mothers in a Medea role which transforms them from victims to despised perpetrators. They may not have heard of Medea - according to one version of the legend, she helped Jason to win the Golden Fleece, fled with him to Corinth and then killed their children when he abandoned her for the king's daughter, Creusa . But the archetype of the murderous mother, who violates her nurturing role and scandalises nature, has been around for at least 2,500 years. It still prejudices attitudes towards women accused of damaging children and ensures that they are treated without mercy.

Now that the state has had to admit it was wrong to convict Mrs Cannings in the first place, it is hard to see why it will not take the logical next step of compensating her for some at least of the suffering she has been through. Obviously nothing can make up for the deaths of her children, but Mrs Cannings - and her husband and daughter, whose own ordeals should not be forgotten - has lost years of her life because of a criminal case that should never have been brought. She is entitled to the return of her good name, and a payment would go a long way towards restoring that most valuable asset.

But there is a wider issue. As well as appearing mean-spirited, the Home Office's decision suggests a reluctance to take responsibility. The department says it does not comment on individual cases, but apparently its refusal stems from the fact that the wrongful conviction came about as a result of evidence given by an independent witness.

This not only overlooks the fact that the Crown chose to employ Meadow and rest its case on his hugely controversial theory, without corroborating evidence; it also confirms the exaggerated respect still shown to experts in this country, which is surely one of the reasons why the despised "compensation culture" has come into being.

Money is highly symbolic and, as Mrs Cannings herself has pointed out, the motive for seeking compensation is sometimes a desire to get justice in circumstances where other avenues are not available. Ordinary people are often rightly pessimistic about their chances of success when they try to establish that they have been injured by someone regarded as an expert in his or her field; in Mrs Cannings' case it was her word against Meadow's, and she stood little chance against his experience, authority and belief in his own theory.

Unless an expert is alleged to have done something criminal, complaints are usually heard by professional bodies - doctors investigate complaints against doctors, lawyers sit in judgement on other lawyers - in a system which is cumbersome, out-of-date and maintains an air of mystique. My guess is that people sometimes seek compensation when what they really want is an apology or a public rebuke for the person who has harmed them, but cannot see a means of obtaining it.

I'm sure Mrs Cannings, Mrs Clark and Mrs Patel would love to hear someone in authority say publicly that they are sorry for everything they have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. In the meantime, the Home Office should accept its responsibilities, stop being so mealy-mouthed and pay up.

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