It was my first time in a court. My husband, Mark was on trial. It was his first offence. He was pleading guilty. We didn’t know how things would go.
We had been told to prepare ourselves for a prison sentence. We were not told how to do that. We had no idea what that would mean in practice. I felt sick to the stomach.
As I sat in the public gallery, I was so stressed that I could see the barristers talking but couldn’t take in what they said. It was as if I was in a different world. Then, it was the judge’s turn to speak. The sentencing statement went on for ages but the only bits that registered with me were the words ‘suspended’ and ‘that will be the end of it’. What aching relief!
Over the first month, a new normal of serving a suspended sentence emerged, including Mark’s weekly visits to the probation officer and getting used to restrictions on travel.
Every day since that day in court, I’d been counting off the weeks, longing for the time my husband’s sentence would be served. I thought that all he had to do was keep his nose clean for a few months longer, which shouldn’t be difficult and the judge’s words would come true – ‘that will be the end of it’. How wrong I was?
I was looking through some papers and noticed our household insurance policy was up for renewal. We’d been with this particular company for three years and had never had to make a claim, so I thought renewing the policy would be a formality.
Then something made me look at the small print. That’s not something I usually do. I noticed something about ‘if your circumstances have changed’. I then saw the bit that said “You must tell us if you or any person usually living with you has any unspent criminal convictions”.
Obviously, we didn’t want any mishaps so Mark rang the insurance company. He told them that he was serving a suspended sentence and told them what it was for. They said they’d get in touch within 72 hours.
Two days later, we received an email from them saying: ‘Your insurance will be cancelled in seven days’. They also said they’d be charging a cancellation fee. The cheek! They didn’t say why the policy was being cancelled, so Mark rang them again. The woman at the end of the phone explained that it was ‘company policy’. Why it was ‘company policy’ she didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t say. We thought we’d have to pay more in premiums, but we didn’t expect to be refused.
As we’d always had a joint policy, Mark asked if we could insure our house in my name. The insurance company said that it would make no difference. Because of his conviction, they considered Mark an uninsurable risk, and I was guilty by association.
A couple of hours after the phone call, the company emailed us with an online customer satisfaction survey to complete. Totally crass!
The whole thing is so unfair. I have done nothing wrong. I had nothing to do with Mark’s offence, and I am being punished. That is not justice.
We needed to get the house and the contents insured in a hurry, so we immediately started searching on the internet for ‘ex-offenders insurance’. We came across a Guardian article that had a list of companies that are prepared to insure ex-offenders and their families. Mark rang one, told them the details and got the cover we needed. It is more than four times the annual premium we were paying with our previous insurers, but at least we’re covered.
Another problem is that this will go on for years. Although his suspended sentence is counted in months, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act counts Mark as having an ‘unspent’ conviction for ten years. He is obliged to disclose unspent convictions or any insurance will be invalid.
When he raised the issue with his probation officer, they said that he was lucky: most of their clients don’t own property to insure. In a way, maybe we are. We cannot afford not to insure our house. We certainly couldn’t afford to lose everything. We will find the money for the higher premiums. But it does seem that society imposes additional punishment on an offender in the name of rehabilitation.
The worst of it is, nobody knows about it until it is too late. The judge didn’t tell Mark this would happen. His probation officer didn’t tell him this would happen. It’s in none of the literature we got from the court.
If I had just gone ahead and renewed the policy without reading it thoroughly, we’d have carried on blithely thinking that we were covered when, in fact, we weren’t. If the house had then been destroyed by fire, we would have been ruined. We would have been homeless. We’d have lost everything.
People should know that a direct result of getting a criminal record – even a fine for a public order offence at a demo – is that the insurance industry regards them and their innocent family as an insurance risk and that many companies will not insure them.
On the day Mark received his verdict in court, I was so relieved and thankful to hear the judge say ‘suspended’. But they were so wrong when they said that serving the sentence would be the end of the matter. For me, and the many innocent family members like me, it feels like it will never end.
By Jane Roe (name changed to protect identity)
This post originally appeared in the The War Cry magazine (copyright of The Salvation Army) and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
Please note: Jane refers to her husband’s conviction taking 10 years to become ‘spent’. It’s unclear exactly what length of suspended sentence he received, but since the rules changed in 2014, that period should have reduced significantly because of changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
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