Leading Article: Silcott deserves his money

THERE is an outcry in the media against the reported award of pounds 10,000 compensation to Winston Silcott for his wrongful conviction for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985. The original guilty verdict was overturned in 1991, when the Court of Appeal ruled that evidence against him had been fabricated.

The reaction to the compensation is based on a complex mix of emotional and more rational arguments. At the time of his conviction, Mr Silcott was already in prison for killing a boxer called Anthony Smith, having been on bail at the time of the Broadwater Farm riot. So arguably he suffered no loss of liberty, the main basis for compensation.

Less logically, the objection is raised that the initial pounds 10,000 payment - made last year, Mr Silcott revealed from prison yesterday - came through more swiftly than any final settlement for PC Coombes, who was severely injured in the same riot and later received an award for his gallantry. Other elements in the outrage have been a disgusted reaction from PC Blakelock's widow, who said the payment made a mockery of British justice; and the evident reluctance of the police, two of whose detectives were last week cleared of fabricating evidence against Mr Silcott, to accept that he is innocent.

All these arguments are irrelevant where they are not downright unfair. The rules of this country's criminal justice system are of little value if they are not applied equally to everyone. The salient fact is the Court of Appeal's conclusion that Mr Silcott had been wrongfully convicted. Yet during, after and even before that trial he was demonised by much of the press to an extent rare in the annals of crime. A clearer case for compensation it would be hard to imagine, regardless of whether or not he was in prison at the time.

In the eyes of the law, Mr Silcott's capacity to feel distress is no less than that of a white, middle- class victim of a miscarriage of justice. In fact, because of his previous conviction, his interim compensation is actually lower than the norm of pounds 15,000: Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, who had been (wrongly) convicted of the previous murder of a British soldier, received the same pounds 10,000 award.

As for the relative speed of the various compensation mechanisms, that is a separate issue. The Silcott payment was recommended by an independent assessor appointed by the Home Office: Sir David Calcutt, QC, no less. Cases such as that of the injured PC Coombes are decided by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

The alternative to semi-automatic Home Office compensation is for victims of miscarriages of justice to sue, a much more expensive and lengthy process in every respect. Mr Silcott and his solicitor are now pressing ahead with a separate legal action, while considering whether to accept a second undisclosed sum as final payment. All those offended by the first should brace themselves for one or even two further rounds of indignation.