On Thursday, I was contacted by a journalist from BBC Hereford & Worcester and asked whether I would comment on the news that the local police force, West Mercia, had paid out £700,000.00 in the past 7 years for compensation claims against the police.
These related primarily to unlawful arrest, assault, and forced searches claims.
The journalist felt that:
- this was a significant sum of money to pay out;
- payment of such a sum indicated that there was a real problem with West Mercia Police; and
- they needed to get their house in order.
As I have represented a number of people who have brought compensation claims against the police in the West Mercia area, I agreed.
You can listen to the interview here:
As you will hear, initially, I was able to remind the listeners that the police enjoy wide powers over the general public. It is incredibly important that we, the public, hold them to account when they exceed those powers either accidentally (by ignorance) or by design (abuse).
When they do transgress it is important that the police:
- admit liability;
- learn from their mistakes; and
- pay the modest level of compensation that the law provides.
Origins of Compensation Claims Against the Police
Then the interview took a somewhat different course to the discussion I had with the BBC journalist before the interview.
Andrew Easton, the interviewer, asked me why compensation should be paid in unlawful arrest cases; how does a lump sum of compensation help that person?
I was not expecting such a philosophical debate. In essence, he was asking not about compensation claims against the police, or about the amount of compensation paid out by West Mercia Police; instead he was questioning our system of tort law.
This aspect of law dates back to Roman times (another one to add to the Monty Python “What have the Romans ever done for us?” sketch) even though the word “tort” was only referred to in the 1580s in the legal sense. Compensation is paid by one party (the tortfeasor) to the other. The intention is to put the person who has suffered a loss in the position they would have been in if the civil wrong (a tort) had not occurred.
In 2,000 years this is the best solution numerous societies have come up with, despite the drawbacks. We cannot turn the clock back but, when someone has been wrongfully arrested and suffered such an experience, should they instead receive financial compensation?
Why Pay Compensation After an Unlawful Arrest?
For anyone involved in the criminal justice system, it is easy to forget the immediate shock and upset that an unlawful arrest can cause, especially to someone who has no experience of the system and who considers themselves to be a good, law abiding, and upstanding member of the community.
Irrespective of the circumstances of the arrest (in your home, in the street, etc), you are immediately deprived of your liberty and possibly handcuffed, a painful and humiliating experience. You are then escorted to a Police station. Upon arrival, you:
- are initially detained in a holding room before then being taken into a custody suite, possibly one of the most intimidating places you could wish to enter;
- are then presented to a Custody Sergeant and the circumstances and reason for your arrest explained;
- are searched and stripped of your possessions;
- are quizzed about your general health and welfare;
- may or may not be entitled to contact someone to advise that you have been arrested;
- may or may not be told what is going to happen and how long you will be held;
- are taken to a cell and the door locked. The cell will probably be no more than a 6 foot by 8 foot room with a wooden bench and small toilet. There may or may not be any natural light.
While locked up you are constantly under observation and completely dependent on the police for anything and everything, even toilet paper and the option to flush the toilet should you need.
Depending on how busy the custody suite is and available resources, the detention staff may or may not respond to any requests that you have.
Often, you may find that if you call for assistance over the intercom system (for an update, to consult the codes of practice, for a blanket or for toilet paper), you find that the police cannot respond in a reasonable period of time, or at all.
That is just the beginning.
You may or may not be held for a lengthy period of time (up to 4 whole days), interviewed, be obliged to provide your finger prints, photograph and a DNA sample, and then be bailed to return to the Police station at a later date or charged to appear in Court.
Doesn’t an experience like that deserve compensation?
My interviewer was not convinced; how is receiving an award after making compensation claims against the police going to help, he asked?
Claiming More than Compensation
During the interview, I concentrated on the principle of compensating the victim, a deeply held principle that I believe strongly and which I have maintained throughout my legal career.
My interviewer was right to challenge and on reflection; I consider that the point of paying compensation goes deeper: not only vindicating and compensating victims but (hopefully) deterring similar incidents from happening in the first place, and putting the responsibility for compensation upon the police.
Indeed, primary motives of many of my clients are for the police to learn lessons, to implement better training, and to ensure that such an event does not happen again. Frequently they also tell me that they want an apology, and that if they had received a full and frank apology at the beginning, that they would have let matters lie.
For example, a client I represented several years ago, Audrey White, was assaulted by officers of Greater Manchester Police during an anti-war public demonstration. (You can read the case report here.)
During the course of her case, I established that junior officers had been given inaccurate advice at an earlier debrief as regards the nature and extent of Police powers with regard to removal of “disguises”.
The officers then acted upon that advice in forcibly removing a Gordon Brown face mask that Audrey was wearing for political and theatrical effect causing her injury and upset.
It wasn’t about the money for Mrs. White. She donated her compensation to charity. More importantly for her, as part of the settlement, she received an apology and an assurance that lessons would be learnt.
Compensation Claims Provide Accountability
And what of the just allocation of responsibility?
As a result, victims are often left with no alternative but to seek redress by pursuing a claim in the civil courts. One such victim was Mr X who I reported on here.
Mr X was assaulted by a Police officer and then prosecuted by the Police for having the temerity to lodge a complaint about the officer shopping on duty.
Despite being found guilty at trial at the Magistrates Court, he was acquitted on appeal when CCTV footage became available that exonerated him. His subsequent complaint to the police was summarily dismissed.
Upon instruction, I sued the police on his behalf and shortly before trial, the Force agreed financial compensation.
During the course of the civil court proceedings, I established that by reason of an entry in his pocket note book, the officer had lied in a subsequent entry in the same note book, in his witness statement and on oath at the Magistrates court.
Following the settlement Mr X submitted a fresh complaint and the officer was interviewed under caution. A police file has now been passed to the CPS to consider criminal charges.
Such accountability for this rogue police officer would not have been possible unless Mr X had brought his compensation claims against the police.
Purpose of Compensation Claims Against the Police
So, what is the point of compensation? Many of my clients tell me that no amount of compensation makes up for the ordeal that they have gone through. They would prefer for the incident to have never happened.
In cases like this we need to remember the benefits that arise not just from the settlement but also the process.
By pursuing compensation claims against the police, my clients get much more than money: they get heard.
For help with your own compensation claims against the police contact me via my firm’s website, using the form below, or on 0151 933 5525.