Family sues prison chiefs over inmate released to kill

THE mother of a woman killed by a prisoner on unsupervised leave has launched a landmark test case against prison bosses, blaming them for her daughter’s death.
Lawyers for Ann Thomson say the action could set a precedent in Scotland and is set to go to the Court of Session – the country’s highest civil court.

Catherine Thomson, 26, died after being stabbed in the neck at her family home by John Campbell, her boy-friend’s brother, in August 2005. The case was highlighted at a fatal accident inquiry when a sheriff ruled that the killing could have been avoided.

The family’s solicitor has now lodged a writ against the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) after receiving a letter in which the prison authorities said they had “no duty of care” towards the murdered woman.

Campbell, who was on unsupervised leave from Castle Huntly open prison, was arrested after the killing, but later plunged to his death from an upper gallery at Barlinnie prison in an apparent suicide.

Following the fatal accident inquiry into Ms Thomson’s death, Sheriff Thomas Millar ruled an assessment of the risk Campbell posed to the community should have been carried out before he was granted leave. The sheriff found that a series of failures led to the killing of Ms Thomson in Moodiesburn, Glasgow.

Cameron Fyfe, the family’s lawyer, raised a court action last week for £30,000 damages. He believes the test case will have implications for future victims of violent crime, setting out the responsibilities of the state.

“There is much at stake for the SPS because, if we win this case, it would allow any victim’s family to claim compensation if they were harmed by a prisoner who was released negligently.”

Claiming the authorities had washed their hands of responsibility over Ms Thomson’s death, he added: “Their solicitors are saying there is no legal duty of care to the public.

“I’m sure this will come as a surprise to many members of the public.

“If, for instance, they were to release a psychopath by mistake and he murdered a whole crowd of schoolchildren, they would not be responsible.

“They’re indicating that no-one is responsible.”

Campbell, 34, was serving an eight-year sentence for two offences of assault to severe injury and permanent disfigurement when he was granted unsupervised leave.

He was initially placed on a high supervision level when he was sentenced in August 2002. But his supervision level was wrongly reduced to medium at Kilmarnock prison within 12 months of his sentencing.

At a review in December 2004, Campbell’s supervision level was again wrongly reduced to low, making him eligible for unsupervised home leave when he was transferred to Castle Huntly, near Dundee.

When he was granted a four-day leave, he was dropped off in Glasgow city centre by Reliance officers, who had no idea where he was going. Three days later, he murdered Ms Thomson.

Lawyers for the Thomson family insist the case illustrates negligence on the part of the prison service.

Sheriff Millar said officers failed to carry out a fresh risk assessment on Campbell, as they assumed one had been done elsewhere and they were simply “rubber-stamping” it.

In his conclusion, Sheriff Millar stated: “Having regard to Campbell’s record, it was reasonably foreseeable that he would be involved in further violent offending on his release.

“His violent behaviour, which was predictable, was the cause of Catherine Thomson’s death. The reasonable precaution, whereby the death may have been avoided, would have been to carry out (an] assessment regarding risk to the community, and to put in place measures to minimise the potential risk.”

He added: “If no such measures were possible, then Campbell should not have been released.”

The case brings into sharp focus concerns about violent prisoners being moved to open prisons. There were accusations that the jails, which have a more relaxed security regime and allow inmates home leave, were being run as “holiday camps” and as a pressure valve for overcrowded jails.

Examples include that of Robert Foye, who was halfway through a ten-year sentence for attempting to murder a police officer in 2002 when he absconded from Castle Huntly and raped a 16-year-old girl.

He had been sent to the open prison despite being classed as at high risk of reoffending and having previously gone on the run from the jail.

Last night, Clive Fairweather, the former chief inspector of Scotland’s prisons, raised concerns about unsuitable prisoners being eligible for the open prison regime. He said the growing issue of overcrowding and prison numbers – which have exceeded 8,000 for the first time – was having a huge impact.

He said: “There is no question that over the past five years there has been huge pressure to send more and more people into open prisons.

“There is a duty to keep the public safe. The service has a duty to take all reasonable steps to make sure risk to the public is minimised.

“The prison numbers have gone up and the staff numbers have gone down, which means no-one is doing their job properly. The staff are rushing around and so risk assessments are not nailed down.”

The issue of overcrowding is a political minefield for the Scottish Government. The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny Mac-Askill, has pledged to reduce the prison population, but last week prison numbers broke through the 8,000 barrier.

Politicians are walking a fine line between ensuring public safety and tackling burgeoning prison numbers. Critics say the opening of Addiewell prison, due by the end of the year, will do little to ease the pressure.

A recent report revealed that Scotland is third in a European league of prison overcrowding, behind Spain and France.

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said the matter was in the hands of lawyers and it would be inappropriate to comment on the case at this stage.

Caroline Thomson, Catherine’s sister, said the family were bringing the case to protect the public.

She said: “The Scottish Prison Service was to blame for Catherine’s death and they should be brought to account for that.

“Nothing will bring Catherine back but we need to take a stand because it may prevent another tragedy from happening to someone else.”

How the system failed Catherine Thomson

Aug 2002: John Campbell, left, sentenced to eight years for two offences of assault to severe injury and permanent disfigur-ement. He is placed on HIGH risk level in jail

2003: Supervision level is wrongly reduced to MEDIUM at Kilmarnock Prison, above. This is the FIRST basic error

December 2004: Review again wrongly reduces supervision level, this time to LOW. It makes him eligible for unsupervised home leave on transfer to open prison. This is the SECOND basic error

2005: Now in Castle Huntly open prison, right. Officers fail to carry out a fresh risk inquiry. Home leave is rubber-stamped. This is the THIRD basic error

19 August, 2005: He is dropped off by Reliance officers in Glasgow city centre. Then just three days later …

22 August, 2005: Campbell stabs Catherine Thomson to death at her family home, above


WHILE the bereaved family of Catherine Thomson demand justice for their loss, dozens of inmates continue to sue the authorities.

The European Convention on Human Rights, dubbed the chancer’s charter, has resulted in a number of bizarre challenges from prisoners.

There was a public outcry in October 2000 when a murderer challenged against the Scottish Prison Service, claiming he was entitled to an employment contract for the work he did in jail. Philip Garden demanded the same rights as other workers, including a “proper rate of pay” and benefits such as holidays.

Convicted armed robber Robert Napier, then 25, was awarded £2,450 in compensation in April 2004 after claiming that slopping out breached his human rights.

In March 2007, Stewart Potter, 43, from Glasgow, jailed for 21 years for assault and robbery, won a legal challenge after he claimed a recorded message on phone calls was an invasion of privacy and breached his human rights.


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