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MP's anger as West Norfolk burglar sues Norwich prison

PUBLISHED: 10:45 07 March 2011 | UPDATED: 15:13 07 March 2011

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An MP said a decision to allow a burglar to sue Norwich Prison because he is unhappy at the way wardens dealt with his drug addiction "made a mockery" of the system.

Henry Bellingham, MP for North-West Norfolk, said he would be raising the issue with Home Secretary Theresa May, as a review of the legal aid bill takes place.

The west Norfolk man suing the prison service is a drug addict with a long record of convictions including burglary, shoplifting, criminal damage, theft and obtaining property by deception. He has served more than one prison sentence, including a three-year term, and is well-known to both police and the courts.

“I think it is disgraceful that they sue; it is public money,” said Mr Bellingham.

“There are legal channels open to those in prison who have a complaint. Suing should only be available in extreme circumstances.”

He added that prisoners should not have the right to sue prison authorities while receiving legal aid to do so.

The entire legal aid system is currently under review and the Home Secretary said the £2.1bn annual bill needed to be cut by £350m by 2015.

Prisoners being funded to sue jails attracted a public outcry when it was revealed last summer that double child killer Ian Huntley was suing for compensation after his throat was slashed by another inmate of a Durham jail.

Huntley, who murdered ten-year-old friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002, claimed the prison failed in its duty of care to protect him. His bid for legal aid to pursue the claim was rejected in December.

The Ministry of Justice has brought in new measures to restrict legal aid funding and low-value claims by groups of prisoners will shortly be withdrawn.

“They must now go through the prison complaints systems before they will even be considered for funding. and even then lawyers can no longer provide legal aid funded services without being authorised by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) first,” said a department spokesman.

In 2009 a total of £21.6m was spent from the public purse on claims arising from prisoners; the previous year the bill was £19m according to the LSC, the body responsible for administering legal aid.

Consultations on the current review closed at the end of February and it is expected that legal aid will be cut from the civil courts in all cases not affecting life or liberty. This would put an end to publicly-funded claims for personal injury and clinical negligence.

Any move to prevent convicts using public money to sue and then receive public money as compensation would be backed by Norfolk’s Police Federation.

General secretary, Dave Benfield, said the federation found the current situation “ironic”.

“Those who use the law of the land in an attempt to gain compensation are the very people who have broken the law in the first place, often on a number of occasions,” he said.

“The public and the federation are united in taking the view that any individual who is in jail relinquishes some rights – including the right to vote.”

Mr Benfield said the federation would include the caveat that prisoners’ basic rights should be protected and they had legal recourse if they were breached.

The Norwich Prison inmate who is suing the service is presenting an Opiate Dependent Prisoner Litigation (ODPL) claim – relating to the handling of his drug addiction treatment.

If his case is settled without coming to court, as some are, the amount he receives may not be revealed until annual figures are collated and released. The most up to date figures currently available for Norwich prison are three years old.

Mr Bellingham said out-of-court settlements should be revealed and he would be calling for transparency when he writes to the Home Secretary.

“There has to be total transparency. I will be writing to the Ministry of Justice and Ken Clark about this issue.

“Prisoners should not have the right to sue the prison service. It is tough coming off drugs and I have every sympathy with people who are on drugs, but we rely on the prison service to treat them,” he added.

Mr Bellingham said he believed prisoners should have their basic human rights protected but should not be allowed to begin civil court actions against the prison service otherwise.

He said it was “appalling” that the prisoner should receive taxpayers’ money for a complaint against the prison and equally appalling that the amount he received may never be known.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “A number of prisoners are seeking to claim damages as a result of alleged clinical mismanagement of their opiate dependency whilst in prison custody. The claims are ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Over a four-year period (2004-08) £44,178 has been paid to inmates of Norwich prison as compensation for a variety of claims. Those who claimed detox treatment for drug addicts was inadequate received payments totalling £15,228 in 2006/7.

Opiate Dependent Prisoner Litigation (ODPL) cost the country £750,000 in 2006 when 197 inmates presented a test case in the High Court claiming that by being forced to go “cold turkey” their human rights were breached. The legal bill for the cases was put at £1m.

During the same year, Norwich prison paid out a total of £23,028 in compensation to inmates; £15,228 in ODPL claims and £7,800 for injury.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice confirmed that the West Norfolk man was currently involved in an ODPL claim and said if it was settled out of court there would be no way of checking how much he received. The amount of money settled out of court by Norwich prison is also not known.

If his case is heard in an open civil court, either County Court or High Court, then the amount awarded would be a matter for the public record.

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