Why Silcott deserves pounds 10,000: Adrian Clarke defends compensation for the victim of a miscarriage of justice and his family

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The Independent Online
'THE AWARD of pounds 10,000 in public money to the killer Winston Silcott, with the promise of more to come, is more than an affront to ordinary decency. It is an outrage which could only have been perpetrated by people out of touch with the real world.' So said the Daily Mail this week. A broad swathe of public opinion agreed, and when the Independent defended the compensation for Silcott, it was branded 'the paper that has no shame' by the Sun. The strength of hostility has been such that the decision to award Silcott compensation, and the amount calculated, clearly require explanation.

Far from being out of touch, those who made the decisions were very much in touch with the real world as experienced by Silcott and his family over the past eight years. The Criminal Justice Act of 1988 gave statutory effect to Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and gave victims of miscarriages of justice an entitlement to compensation. The decision about whether an applicant falls within the scheme is taken by the Home Secretary, but the amount of compensation is calculated by an independent assessor. Sir David Calcutt, QC, has been assessor since the scheme's inception.

Home Office guidelines set out how the compensation is to be assessed. The figure is not plucked out of the air, as has been suggested, but is calculated according to the normal principles of assessment of damages for civil wrongs. According to the guidelines, the payment is offered in recognition of the hardship caused by a miscarriage of justice. The term hardship is interpreted as meaning not just loss of liberty; an award can be made where there has been a wrongful conviction but no period of imprisonment.

Among other matters, the assessor will take account of 'damage to character and reputation, hardship, including mental suffering, injury to feelings, and inconvenience'. The assessor must also consider how far the situation might be attributable to any action, or failure to act, by the police or other public authority, though the payment is intended to compensate the victim, not punish anyone.

Winston Silcott applied for compensation in June 1992. The Home Secretary decided that he fell within the scheme, and Sir David Calcutt advised an interim payment of pounds 10,000. He has now made a final assessment which Silcott is considering.

At the time of his arrest for the murder of PC Blakelock in October 1985, Silcott was on bail, charged with the murder of Anthony Smith. Bail had been granted by Mr Justice Lymbery, who had taken the much criticised but correct view that the evidence against Silcott in the Smith case was flimsy in the extreme. Silcott's arrest for the Blakelock murder caused him to lose his bail. The five months that he spent in custody between his arrest in the Blakelock case and his trial in the Smith case was solely a result of his second arrest. However, it was rightly accepted by Sir David that the effect of the wrongful conviction had implications that went far beyond the time he spent in custody.

As part of his assessment, Calcutt considered a dossier of press coverage during the months and years after the original trial. It is hard to think of someone who has been vilified by the press as grotesquely as Silcott. There appeared, indeed appears, to be an almost systematic attempt to portray him as sub- human, a monster who enjoys killing. 'Machete monster', 'The face of evil', 'Evil smile of hate' were some of the epithets applied after his conviction, and the campaign of hate continues.

Calcutt took into account the press treatment, stating that 'the publicity surrounding the conviction was of the gravest kind, and the abuse of Mr Winston Silcott and his family was grave. He was portrayed as a monster who exercised a rule of terror over the residents of Broadwater Farm. As a result, his family were vilified by press coverage, abused and harassed at their homes and places of work . . . I accept that there was a comprehensive destruction of Mr Silcott's and his family's name in the national consciousness.'

Calcutt had good reason to take that view. Following the conviction, the Silcotts were barraged with hate mail and threatening phone calls; they were taunted in the street and there were attempts to set fire to their home. The abuse has led to a serious deterioration in both parents' health. There was as little escape for them as there was for their son.

How can it be denied that the effect of the wrongful conviction on both Silcott and his family has been catastrophic? The thinly veiled subtext in the recent press coverage has been that Silcott was guilty as charged. Suffice it to say that the Court of Appeal found the only evidence against Silcott unreliable. Lord Justice Farquharson ended his judgment: 'In allowing these appeals, we wish to express our profound regret that they (Silcott and his co-accused,Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite) have suffered as a result of the shortcomings of the criminal process. No system of trials is proof against perjury, but this will be of little consolation to its victims.'

Much has been made of witness statements that were read out in the trial of the police officers DCS Melvin and DI Dingle (who were acquitted of falsifying evidence against Silcott), but it should be understood that the witnesses did not attend court and the evidence has not, therefore, been tested in any way. Nor does the evidence in the statements fit with the known facts of what happened, and in several cases the statements emanate from juveniles whose evidence was found by the judge at the original trial to have been obtained by oppression. One of the witnesses has said since the trial that he had no idea that his evidence was to be used. Silcott's compensation was calculated on the basis that he is innocent of the crime, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Last, but by no means least, Silcott remains in prison as a result of the conviction for the murder of Anthony Smith. The serious concerns about that conviction are cloaked in the blanket of prejudice attaching to the Blakelock case. The Smith conviction needs to be examined by the Court of Appeal at once so as finally to put an end to this sorry story.

The author is a solicitor at Bindman & Partners and acted for Winston Silcott in the Blakelock case.

(Photograph omitted)