Survivors of childhood abuse campaign for compensation
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of sexual abuse of children some readers may find upsetting.
People who have experienced childhood abuse in the UK are being denied compensation by a punitive law. Survivors are now campaigning to change this.
When *Lucy was 11 years old her grandfather began sexually abusing her. For the next seven years he raped her repeatedly and arranged for others to have sex with her in exchange for money.
Speaking at a webinar hosted by Women Against Rape, she said: “There were a few weeks when he was doing it every night. Then he sold me to my first man. I was still so small, I was about 4 ft tall and he was so big.”
Lucy went to her doctor, but terrified of the threats her grandfather had made, she kept quiet about the abuse. “My granddad hit me and threatened me, and said that if I ever told anyone, something worse would happen,” she says. “The doctor put all the marks and cuts down to thrush and itching, so he actually failed me.”
“Because he had got away with it once, it continued over a long period of time. There must have been well over 200 men,” Lucy adds.
She reported him when she was 18, and he eventually pleaded guilty to rape and arranging child prostitution, for which he was sentenced to 22 years. But the abuse Lucy suffered led her to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. A week after reporting him she got into a fight after drinking heavily and ended up in the Accident & Emergency room, where the police arrested her. She was sectioned a week later. “The police arrested me in hospital without me getting treatment for the overdose. Then one week after I was sectioned and while I was in there, I tried to hang myself, but they still charged me.”
Lucy was charged with common assault, which usually carries a maximum sentence of six months’ custody, and given a community order – issued when an offender is found guilty of a crime that does not meet the threshold for a custodial sentence.
When she tried to apply for compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (CICA) for the years of abuse she had suffered her claim was turned down, as her conviction was “unspent”. Under the terms of her community order, if she had waited five days before making the claim she would have been successful, but she wasn’t aware of this. She appealed, but this was also rejected.
The right to compensation
CICA was established to administer a compensation scheme for injuries caused to victims of violent crime in England, Scotland and Wales. Compensation can be awarded to people who have experienced physical injuries, disabling mental injuries, and sexual or physical abuse, however it can be reduced or refused in the case of an unspent conviction.
Under UK law a conviction is “spent” once a set period of time has passed, as defined by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. It is then removed from the individual’s criminal record.
The rule around refusing compensation is “intended to prevent individuals who have committed serious illegal acts from benefiting from state-funded compensation.” Considering the scale of abuse Lucy has experienced and the crime she was convicted of, this policy seems grossly unfair.
Unfortunately Lucy’s case is not isolated. Kim Mitchell was sexually assaulted at the age of eight by a male teacher at her school. She reported the attack three times before the police would take action; he would not be jailed until 27 years later. As an adult Kim experienced PTSD and suicidal ideation, and was refused any award as she had been convicted of threatening behaviour and given a community order when her employer refused to pay her wages.
Kim mounted a legal challenge when in 2020, the Ministry of Justice decided not to consult on whether victims of child sexual abuse with unspent convictions should continue to be subject to this rule. Her claim was successful, and in August 2021 the High Court ruled that a legitimate expectation to consult on the issue had been breached, ordering a public consultation to take place.
This consultation is now underway to make a decision about whether to revise the rule.
A discriminatory rule
Rape prosecutions have fallen by 70% since 2018. Between 2020-21, just 1.3% of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged. And yet 10% of women in England and Wales report experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 16 (rising to a depressing 25% when taking all forms of abuse into account).
Because of this, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme is often the only acknowledgement victims of serious crime get.
According to Women Against Rape, the most common crimes women are convicted of are “poverty crimes” like shoplifting, non-payment of a TV licence, or underage drinking or drugs.
Lucy and Kim endured horrific trauma as children that has shaped part of their adult lives. They should not be criminalised by this blanket law which does the most harm to the most vulnerable people – who have committed minor offences that are a direct result of their abuse.
Together with Women Against Rape, Kim and Lucy are petitioning to change this law. The consultation closes on August 5.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.