May 24, 2006

Justifying violent crime?

With the current murmerings about the rights of criminals being overplayed and victims being put at extra risk a story in this morning's Metro seemed particularly apt.

Jonathan Wright was assaulted by Michael Donohoe and hit over the dead with a nail–studded post, leaving him with a three–inch gash over his ear. However, when he applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for compensation he was turned down because he swore at his assailant. Quoting from the letter of refusal…

Your conduct, in being verbally abusive towards the assailant, was an important factor in the incident.

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  1. It's great when it all comes together, isn't it…

    24 May 2006, 12:04

  2. James

    This is a standard feature of state intervention, the inevitable silly allocation of resources. The state sets up some economic activity, in this case compensation to crime victims. Its funding is finite, but the number of claims potentially infinite, so it therefore has to draw up criteria for allocating who gets what and how much (all the while agitating for more funds not just to pay out but also to hire more staff and get better facilities). The guidelines it comes up with for eligibility get interpreted by some jobsworth civil servant. The civil servant does her or his best to follow the rules and thereby be seen as objective. Therefore some of the results look ridiculous.

    Well to cynical me that's how it always seems to work.

    24 May 2006, 12:40

  3. For all the reader knows, he might have been verbally abusing the guy for a long time, or subjecting him to particularly personal abuse, or anything really. Even if this wasn't the case, the trend towards victims always looking for compensation from a crime is very similar to the ambulance–chasing culture of law firms who specialise in accident compensation claims.

    24 May 2006, 15:17

  4. Joe, that is a very important point. However, should provocation ever justify the illegal violence that results?

    I do agree that the current trend towards excessive compensation claims is worrying, however. In one example I heard from a friend that a guy had bought a bicycle from the Singapore, I think, where bike brakes are wired the opposite way around. He had been thrown from it whilst hurtling down a hill because he'd put on the front brake instead of the back, and received a rather large payment because the instructions had not been sufficiently clear…

    24 May 2006, 16:30

  5. James

    Sarah, not that I wish to doubt you or your friend, but do you have a source for that story? It sounds slightly akin to an urban myth to me, although I did the exact same thing with a new bike when I was about 12 (though didn't hit a car I'm pleased to say). Japanese cars have indicator stalks/windscreen wiper stalks the other way around; more than once I've put the wipers on when changing lanes, which has had interesting consequences.

    I have blogged before about silly compensation claims. They certainly exist, though how much they are increasing is open to question. In America a lot of it stems from the fact that juries are allowed to determine damages awards – hence the nonsense like the McDonalds coffee cup case. In England, at least, it remains under the control of judges.

    In my view the most worrying are payments for "stress" to the likes of teachers, police and the armed forces. No doubt those are three of the most stressful jobs in the land, but, well, that's the nature of them. In a more robust age people were supposed to deal with these things.

    On a related theme, there are moves afoot to allow victims and their families yet more say in the sentencing process. Already we have victim's impact statements. What do readers think of those? The idea seems to be to give victims a 'voice' in the trial process, where they have previously felt alienated. Perhaps so, but that wouldn't justify their views actually being determinative of anything. The ideal of a sentencing process is that it is done by the discretion of an expert (the judge), within set limits (minimum and maximum sentences), and with guidelines (precedent, which requires them to consider the seriousness of the attack, provocation (not just the legal sense of provocation), etc.

    The view of someone who happened to be the victim isn't something that I think adds anything to that exercise. Of course, the media live for the views of victims: look at the celebrity status of the MaCartney sisters whose brother/fiance was killed by dissident IRA members. Yes we feel sorry for them, but since when did that make them experts on the peace process? Much worse is the publicity afforded to the views of Paul Bigley, brother of murdered hostage Ken Bigley (in Iraq). Why does that connection to an horrific event make Mr Bigley's views on the legitimacy of the Iraq war any more valid than the next random individual?

    25 May 2006, 12:30

  6. It's okay, I too doubt the authenticity of that story – I looked for a source but couldn't find one. I mentioned it here more as a flippant anecdote rather than as evidence.

    25 May 2006, 13:02

  7. James


    Sure, I thought I was placing a bit too much on a slender reed (and am about to continue doing so). It struck me though that the story bore the hallmarks of an urban myth because (i) the manufacturer would not have been negligent if it was based in Singapore, because that is how they do things there; and (ii) bikes don't normally come with instructions.

    Just one point of pedantry about your original post: the fact that the victim didn't get a payout, or got a reduced one, because of his abusive language, isn't actually connected to the criminal and therefore doesnt' involve the latter's rights. That would only have been the case had he sued the offender for damages and had them reduced on account of his abusive behaviour. The Crim. Injuries Comp is a statutory payout scheme: you suffer a crime, you claim off them like a form of social welfare. The criminal isn't involved.

    There are however many examples of the dilemma you pose, the most stark in my view being where burglars have sued property owners for shooting them, or where the latter have been prosecuted for murder after taking matters into their own hands. Tony Martin was the example that received the most publicity.

    25 May 2006, 14:58

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