Compensation culture in jails shows how easy it is to exploit our rights-based and unequal system
Publicly-funded legal challenges are the new Armalite in battle against state, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
It was the legal dispute over a budgie that brought home to me how shamelessly prisoners in Northern Ireland were misusing the law. It was 2009, and as a supporter and chronicler of the (successful) civil case against the Omagh bombers, I was spending a great deal of time in court.
We had raised more than £1m to finance the case, but with legal aid being freely available to the defence we were running out of money until Peter Mandelson twisted Tony Blair's arm to level the playing field by providing finance for the plaintiffs.
One of the lawyers on our side was also involved at the expense of the British taxpayer in a separate case, opposing an application for legal aid by a prisoner who allegedly had so neglected his bird that it had become a health and safety hazard.
He was affronted that after its death he was refused permission to have a replacement.
On this occasion the Prison Service fought and legal aid was denied, but it still cost money it could ill afford.
As TUV leader and QC Jim Allister commented recently, the fact that prisoners can get legal aid so easily balances the system in their favour.
That being so, it's hardly surprising that the state has increasingly tended to cave in on the grounds that it is cheaper to sling comparatively small sums of money at prisoners than pay large sums to lawyers.
In this it is following in the footsteps of the media, which increasingly pays Danegeld when threatened under atrociously restrictive libel laws, which DUP and Sinn Fein are reluctant to reform.
As a Daily Mail lawyer said when explaining why it was paying £10,000 to Ian Paisley to go away after receiving a letter from libel lawyer Paul Tweed threatening to sue over a glancing comment of mine: "Of course, we'd win if this went to court, but it would tie up our legal department and cost us a fortune."
I worry about precedent, not least because speech is becoming less free and the law is being unscrupulously used to bleed the taxpayer, and could yet bankrupt us if legislators don't get a grip.
We learned earlier this month as a result of this newspaper's requests under the Freedom of Information Act that there has been a spiralling in prisoners' claims for compensation since helpful lawyers introduced them to the honeypot provided by claims for breaches of their human rights.
In Magilligan medium-security prison, which houses a few hundred adult male inmates with less than six years to serve, numbers of such claims went from 10 in 2014 to 62 in 2015 and 638 last year.
Startlingly, in 2016 there were more injury claims than inmates.
I read an instructive 2015 report by Queen's Professor Kieran McEvoy, an enthusiastic social justice warrior who describes himself as a "human rights and peace activist".
Entitled Political Prisoners, Resistance And The Law In Northern Ireland: A Paper For Palestinian Activists, he spelled out how republican prisoners moved from rejecting the legitimacy of courts to using them as "an additional arena of practical struggle alongside armed struggle and political mobilisation".
Hence Sinn Fein's devotion to the "rights-based society" Gerry Adams demands as the price for the restoration of the Executive.
As Allister pointed out recently apropos an Irish Language Act, rights-based legislation rather than a needs-based approach inevitably results in "ever expanding parameters" and the extension of the "tentacles of the rights… through an endless flow of legal challenges".
Publicly-funded judicial reviews are fast becoming the new Armalite,
As if Theresa May did not have enough problems, the other day she had to endure a 20-minute phone call with Mr Adams, Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald.
Blaming the British Government for the failure of the talks, Mr Adams says he told her that "the provision of an Irish Language Act, marriage equality, a Bill of Rights and funding for legacy inquests are all British Government obligations… if power sharing and the Good Friday Agreement are to mean anything".
The future for the poor wretched taxpayer looks bleak. The way things are going, henceforward a budgie-neglecter will settle for nothing short of an aviary.