Compensate the innocent who are bankrupted clearing their names, says police watchdog

Innocent people bankrupted by legal battles to clear their names in criminal cases should be compensated by the state, says Her Majesty’s chief inspector of police.

In his final interview with The Telegraph before stepping down this week, Sir Tom Winsor urged ministers to end decade-old curbs on the reimbursement of legal expenses for people acquitted of serious offences.

It has become known as the “innocence tax” since it was introduced in 2014. As a result, some 126,000 acquitted defendants have been left out of pocket, to the value of thousands of pounds, after having to pay court bills because of having no legal aid or limited support.

Asked to identify the single piece of legislation he would change if he could, Sir Tom cited abolition of  the tax – and revealed that one of his closest friends, a self-employed musician, had been a victim after being falsely accused of rape and coercive behaviour by his ex-partner.

He was unable to work as a teacher as he fought the case until, on the Friday before the Monday of the trial opening, “they looked at the evidence and said it was quite clearly a false accusation. This was two years ago. He is still trying to rebuild his life and business,” said Sir Tom.

‘Everyone is entitled to a defence’

“We have a system in this country that goes back to Magna Carta. That you are innocent until proven guilty. If you are facing an inequality of arms [with the state prosecutors] when you are tried, then justice will be denied in many cases,” he said.

“Everyone is entitled to a defence. The whole purpose of criminal justice is to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent. The acquittal of the innocent is not given the appropriate attention, the resources and value by the state.

“Depending on the passage of time and seriousness of the offence and complexity of the investigation you could have lost all your savings, you could have lost your house. You could have lost a lot and got nothing back from the state.”

It is understood the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is currently reviewing the “innocence tax” and may lift the cap on means testing for those who are prepared to use legal aid lawyers.

Sir Tom also said the public and politicians would have to invest more in the police if they wanted higher crime detection rates, which have fallen as complex crimes such as child abuse and rape have increased.

“The public would say they do want to make that investment rather than shaving 30 seconds off the journey to Birmingham in order to catch and lock up these people who are doing the most despicable things to children,” he said.

“If the people of England and Wales decided not to buy a fancy, overpriced coffee in the morning and they put all that money in a pool, they would save a lot of lives. We are going to have to accept lower detection rates than would otherwise have been the case unless we invest more.”

Investment would deliver ‘paedophiles for pennies’

He said “a relatively small additional investment” with the technology that the police and National Crime Agency (NCA) had available, could have a big impact on child abuse, cyber crime and fraud. He cited officers at the NCA who said £500 million could enable them to map the entire dark web. 

He also referred to an investigation by NCA officers, costing £20,000, which cracked a paedophile ring. “The officers said that using the technology they have with appropriate investment could deliver paedophiles for pennies,” he said.

He believed police should focus on tackling serious crimes rather than online messages. “Going round to someone’s house, saying we have looked at your tweets and we are investigating your thoughts, I don’t think the public will tolerate that,” he said.

When he took over as chief inspector in 2012, one in five crimes reported to police were not recorded and so not investigated. That was now below one in 10 but that still meant many crimes were not being investigated. “That should be as close to 100 per cent as possible,” he said.

One of his biggest concerns was the failure to investigate fraud, which accounts for 53 per cent of all crime but where fewer than one per cent of offences result in a charge. Sir Tom cited one force that closed 96 per cent of cases with bona fide leads “without doing anything with them”.

He said it needed to become more of a priority for police forces and the Government as victims were often vulnerable and elderly who could lose hundreds of thousands. “If an elderly person hangs himself or herself in their garage or throws themselves off a building or cliff, it is murder in slow motion,” he said.

Sir Tom plans a move into domestic and international arbitration and mediation but will first carry out a review into the ousting of Dame Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, by the London mayor. He has been appointed by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to investigate after Sadiq Khan effectively forced Dick to resign by withdrawing his confidence in her.

Sir Tom will be replaced by Andy Cooke, the former chief constable of Merseyside who has since joined the HM inspectorate.

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