In the Media

Judges rule out recompense for the innocent

PUBLISHED July 16, 2007

A recent decision of the High Court has blown a gaping new hole in our criminal justice system. If government officials wrongfully arrest you for a crime you didn't commit, then imprison you in hellish conditions for two years, you no longer have any right of redress.

If you are found guilty of a crime but the verdict is then reversed, you can still claim compensation. But, thanks to a ministerial diktat just upheld by the courts, if you are wholly innocent and eventually acquitted you now have no legal remedy, even if you have spent years in jail with your livelihood destroyed into the bargain.

Few stories in this column over the years have been more shocking than that which I reported in April 2005 about Ian Thornhill, a former senior policeman who ran an import-export business in South Wales. In 2003 Mr Thornhill became the victim of an astonishing series of blunders by HM Customs and Excise, when they were tipped off that a container-load of assorted goods being imported into Southampton included a large quantity of cocaine. Also in the container was a consignment of nuts being imported by Mr Thornhill, whose brother Stuart had been acting quite independently as a forwarding agent for the container.

When Customs officials arrested a lorry driver who had been sent to pick up the cocaine, worth ?60 million, their largest-ever haul, they also arrested the two brothers, although there was no shred of evidence to indicate that they had been involved. (The cocaine had been smuggled into the container en route.)

This led to a scarcely believable nightmare for the two men which was to last for nearly two years. They were held as Class A prisoners in a succession of top-security prisons, next to mass-murderers and terrorists. Stuart's health collapsed. Three times they were put on trial, in different cities, at one point being driven 100 miles a day to the court and back for several weeks, strapped down and deprived of food in freezing prison vans.

Twice a retrial had to be ordered because the Crown made such a hash of the prosecution (Customs and Excise in effect had no case), until eventually in March 2005, when the two men had been put through this hell for 22 months, a jury unanimously found them not guilty.

When Ian Thornhill returned home to his wife, whose personal bank account had also been frozen, his business was gone. He had nothing to sell but his premises.

As advised by lawyers, he did, however, have one hope. In such a case of flagrant injustice, the home secretary had a discretionary power to order an ex gratia sum in compensation. But in April 2006, when Mr Thornhill was preparing to apply for such a payment, the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, decided to scrap the scheme.

A group action to have his edict declared unlawful was brought by a number of leading London law firms, but last month two judges, May and Gray, found that Clarke was acting within his powers. When their judgment was reported last week, it came as a body blow to Mr Thornhill.

Under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, anyone found guilty and then acquitted can still claim compensation. But Ian and Stuart Thornhill no longer have any right to redress, for what must be as glaring an act of injustice as any ever perpetrated by the officials of our increasingly all-powerful state