Calculating Compensation in a Claim Against the Police: A lesson in Damages.

Iain Gould solicitorI have previously blogged on the cases of Chris and Claire, both involving serious police misconduct in very different circumstances.

Chris brought a claim for assault against West Midlands Police having been injured by a Police Officer slamming his shield against his head.

Claire brought a claim for misfeasance in Public Office against West Mercia Police having been the victim of sexual exploitation by a Police Officer.

At an early stage in both cases, liability was admitted and an offer of settlement was made.

Notwithstanding the admission and offer, ultimately it proved necessary to issue Court proceedings and against the Police.  Why?

In both cases, the Defendant Police Force refused to put forward realistic offers of settlement and in the circumstances, it was necessary to issue proceedings so as to bring the respective forces to the negotiating table with the threat of a trial.

So how do we go about valuing such cases which at face value are so different?

Basic Principals

There are three types of damages available to victims of Police Misconduct; Basic, Aggravated and Exemplary.

  • Basic damages

Basic damages are designed to provide basic compensation for the loss and injury suffered as a result of the incident. They encompass:

a. pain, suffering and loss of amenity resulting from the wrongdoing (essentially the physical and psychological injuries inflicted);

b. any identifiable financial losses, for example loss of earnings, medical expenses, etc.

  • Aggravated damages

Aggravated damages are awarded at the Court’s discretion in addition to basic damages in exceptional cases where;

  • The Police have acted to aggravate the basic loss by causing injury to feelings, for example by insulting, humiliating, degrading, distressing and/or outraging the Claimant: and
  • It could result in the Claimant not receiving sufficient compensation for the injuries suffered if the award was restricted to a basic award only.

Accordingly, aggravated damages are usually only awarded in serious claims of wrongdoing.

The Court have given guidelines on the circumstances which might justify an award of aggravated damages including;

i. humiliating circumstances at the time of the incident: or

ii. any conduct of those responsible which shows they have behaved in a high-handed, insulting, malicious or oppressive manner.

iii aggravating features can also include the way litigation and trial are conducted.

Other factors which might found a claim for aggravated damages include;

a. if the conduct took place in public;

b. a lack of apology from the Police;

c. if the Claimant was physically or verbally abused;

d. if the Police were motivated by prejudice;

e. if the Police attempted to obstruct the investigation of a complaint by the Claimant;

f. any other feature of the Police’s conduct throughout the case.

Aggravated damages start at around £1,680 and go up to a maximum of about twice the award for basic damages according to the lead case of Thompson and Hsu v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

  • Exemplary damages

An award of exemplary damages is even more exceptional than an award of aggravated damages, as the object of exemplary damages is to punish the Police rather than to compensate the Claimant.

Exemplary damages can only be awarded if the Police’s wrongdoing constituted oppressive, arbitrary and/or unconstitutional action.

Exemplary damages will not normally be awarded at less than £8,400 according to the guidelines set out in the case of Thompson and Hsu.

Chris’ case

I have previously provided a full description of Chris’ case in my blog. (Read it here.)

As a result of the Police Officer’s actions in smashing his shield against Chris’s head, Chris suffered injuries as follows;

  • A superficial laceration of several centimetres to his right temple that required closure with surgical glue that was tender/painful for 6 weeks and which left a small indented scar that was only visible on close inspection.
  • Headaches for several months, initially as a consequence of the direct blow to the right side of the head and subsequently as a result of the tension caused by the stress of the complaint process.
Are police the real football hooligans? This photo of a riot shield injury shows the damage they cause.

Photo of Chris’ injury caused by a police officer’s riot shield.

By the time I was instructed, Chris had made a full recovery from his injuries.  Although he had immediately attended the hospital following the incident, he had not sought any further medical treatment.

In addition, Chris’ jacket had ripped in the melee, he missed some time off work and he had incurred some normal expenses.  All in all, his additional losses totalled £250.

  • Basic Damages

Notwithstanding the violent nature of the assault and how serious his injuries could have been,  Chris’ injuries were relatively modest.

So as to value Chris’ claim for Basic Damages, I referred to the Judicial College Guidelines which provide appropriate brackets for awards of damage for personal injury.  Of relevance was the guideline for “trivial scarring” (£1225 – £2250) and “minor brain or head injury – headaches” (£1575 – £9100).  I valued Chris’ claim for personal injury to be worth in the region of £3500.  Together with his claim for additional losses (£250), I therefore valued his claim to be worth £3,750.  So, how did Chris end up recovering £17,500?

  • Aggravated Damages

I was satisfied that this was a clear case where aggravated damages should be awarded, particularly in light of the relatively low award of basic damages Chris would receive for personal injuries (which as I have stated above,  were surprisingly minor notwithstanding the officer’s violent attack).

Why?

Sergeant A attacked Chris with his shield which he used as a weapon, specifically he turned his shield and hit Chris with the edge of his shield, a technique known as ‘blading’.  This is a technique taught in public order training specifically to be used only when encountering serious levels of violence or to quote West Midlands Police’s own complaint investigation report, “as a last resort”.

Further Chris was struck to his head (on what West Midlands Police describe as the “final target area”) and his injuries could have been so much more serious.

The incident occurred in full public view and could in fact have caused a far bigger public disturbance because both Chris and a number of his friends were angry and began to remonstrate with Police Sergeant A and other officers.

The officer’s conduct amounted to a gratuitous attack; it was deliberate rather than accidental.

The officer (and several of his colleagues) told lies about Chris’ behaviour, stating that Chris was abusive, aggressive and threatening.

Yet further, the conduct of Police Sergeant A was condoned by his supervising Inspector who stated that “from the start of the police operations, officers had been instructed to be robust but fair in their policing style and he believed that Police Sergeant A had performed his role in exactly the manner in which he expected”.

Furthermore, an additional aggravating feature of the case was in my opinion the Defendant’s Professional Standards Department deliberately failing to investigate Chris’ complaint adequately and objectively and perversely concluding that the actions of Police Sergeant A were lawful, necessary and proportionate.  Such a failure and conclusion upset Chris and exacerbated his legitimate sense of grievance.  The Defendant’s response to his complaint was designed to improperly shield (sadly no pun intended) Police Sergeant A from a finding of misconduct or other legitimate criticism.

Overall, I felt that the Court would award aggravated damages around twice the amount of basic damages ie something in the region of £7,500.

  • Exemplary Damages

Somewhat exceptionally, there were a number of features of this case that I considered made it an appropriate case for an award of exemplary damages.

On Chris’ account and that of Sergeant X (the Officer who lodged a separate complaint against the offender Sergeant A), Sergeant A had deliberately attacked Chris.  Notwithstanding that the officer was in no danger throughout the incident and therefore the force used was excessive and disproportionate.  Such action was clearly oppressive and arbitrary.

Furthermore, there was in my opinion a real prospect that Chris would establish at trial that the complaint process overseen by an Inspector was in reality a cover up.

By this stage, I had assessed Basic and Aggravated Damages combined to be worth in the region of £11,500.

I was of the opinion that the Court would consider this to be inadequate compensation for what Chris had been through and award exemplary damages in the region of £8,500.

Conclusion

I considered Chris was likely to recover approximately £3,750 in basic damages, £7,500 in aggravated damages and £8,500 in exemplary damages, ie a total of £20,000.

At an early stage of the case and without sight of any medical evidence, West Midlands Police offered £750 settlement.  On my advice, Chris rejected this offer.  After medical evidence was commissioned and full details of his claim presented, West Midlands Police offered £3,000 maintaining that his “needs are more than adequately met by a basic award”.  Notwithstanding West Midlands Police’s admission of liability, there was still a significant dispute as regards Chris’ demeanour at the time (according to West Midlands Police, “argumentative”, “abusive” and “argumentative”), and whether the complaint investigation had been pursued improperly and/or inadequately and whether the decision of the Professional Standard’s Department as regards the complaint was perverse, as I argued, or simply “within a range of reasonable conclusions arising from the material available”.

Allowing for litigation risk, I advised Chris to put forward a counter offer of £15,000.  16 months later and just 1 month before the trial window, the Defendant (in my opinion to avoid embarrassment of its officers at trial and a storm of adverse publicity), put forward a revised offer of £17,500.  Allowing for (significant) litigation risks, I had no hesitation in advising my client to accept.

Claire’s case

Claire was the unfortunate victim of sexual exploitation by PC Jordan Powell.  I have blogged about her case previously which you can find here.

As a result of PC Powell’s exploitation, Claire suffered psychological injuries specifically;

i) Immediately following the incident, she experienced disturbed appetite, disturbed sleep, low mood and a degree of weight loss.  She also lost confidence, which affected her self-esteem.

ii) Further, she felt “dirty”, “used” and “stupid” and as though she had done something wrong.  She felt that PC Powell abused her trust.

iii) Claire’s view of the police was also affected by the incident and she experienced negative thoughts towards the police.

In the circumstances, I felt it appropriate to commission a report from a Psychiatrist.  Following examination, the Psychiatrist concluded that; Despite the abuse Claire had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, there was no evidence of significant psychiatric history.  However following the relationship with PC Powell, Claire had experienced marked psychological disturbance.

Prior to the expert’s assessment, Claire had received numerous counselling sessions for between six and nine months which she found to be helpful and beneficial.

The expert found that Claire was not experiencing any symptoms of acute mental disorder at the time of his assessment but that she had experienced some degree of psychological disturbance directly related to the incident with PC Powell, which led to issues that required addressing in formal therapy.  The expert opined that Claire experienced features of an Adjustment Disorder, with predominant disturbance of other emotions.  Although these acute symptoms resolved around two months after the end of the relationship with PC Powell, Claire had continued to express negative thoughts towards men and the police, which had been exacerbated by the incident, and continued to experience problems with confidence and self-esteem, although she was coping well and her capacity to work, care for her children and carry out activities of daily living had not been affected.

In respect of prognosis, the expert concluded that  it would be favourable if Claire received a further course of therapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (“CBT”) to fully treat her residual symptoms.  The expert was of the view that Claire should make a full recovery within four months of commencing treatment.

Claire subsequently underwent nine sessions of CBT.  In the discharge report, the CBT therapist confirmed that Claire had engaged well with treatment and she had  achieved a full recovery.

Basic Damages

Once again, I referred to the Judicial College Guidelines. According to the Guidelines, there are a number of factors to be taken into account in assessing psychiatric claims, namely: the injured person’s ability to cope with life and work; the effect on relationships with family, friends and those with whom they come into contact; the extent to which treatment would be successful; future vulnerability; prognosis; and whether medical help has been sought.  In respect of claims relating to sexual and physical abuse, the fact of an abuse of trust is relevant to the award of damages.

The Guidelines provided that for minor injury, the appropriate  psychological bracket was £1290 to £4900.  For the application of this bracket, the level of award would reflect the length of the period of disability and the extent to which daily activities and sleep were affected.

There were a number of features of Claire’s case that were relevant to determining the appropriate level of award; she obviously struggled with a number of symptoms, particularly in the first two months when she displayed symptoms of an Adjustment Disorder and the injury was most acute, and thereafter with the ongoing effects but overall her ability to cope with life and with work was not significantly affected. Further, Claire’s relationships with her family, including her children, and friends were not affected.  However, her relationships with men in general were affected, as was her relationship with the police. Recommended treatment was successful and Claire made a full recovery within 3 years.

I determined that there was a basis for saying that this was a sexual abuse case because, notwithstanding that the sexual contact between Claire and PC Powell could potentially be viewed as ‘consensual’, PC Powell’s abuse of power was a sexual abuse of power, in that he improperly commenced a sexual relationship with Claire.  There was undeniably an abuse of the trust that members of the public ought to have in the police.  It was also relevant to take into account that Claire did not necessarily recognise or acknowledge the abuse of power until just before or shortly after the relationship had come to an end.

Taking all matters into account, I assessed damages for Claire’s personal injury to be worth approximately £4000.  In addition, there was a claim for treatment cost and travel expenses of just under £1,000.  So Claire’s claim for Basic Damages was valued at £5,000 – £8,000.  So, how did she end up with £25,000?

Aggravated Damages

In my opinion, this was again a clear case where aggravated damages should be awarded,  particularly in light of the relatively low award of basic damages Claire would receive for personal injuries (which in some ways reflected the fact that Claire was of strong character and for which she should not be inappropriately penalised).

Why?

PC Powell targeted Claire because of her status as a vulnerable victim of domestic abuse. Further it was relevant that at the time the improper relationship started, Claire was in fear of her ex-husband and had sought the protection of the police.

It was also relevant that the incidents took place in Claire’s private sphere, including exploitation of her personal mobile telephone number, which she had provided to the police for contact in relation to the reports she had made to them, and progressed into her home, where Claire lived with her children, who were also vulnerable by virtue of their age.

The sheer number of messages Claire received and their explicit content was relevant, as was the fact that PC Powell was on duty during the course of much of his contact with Claire and at least on some occasions he was in uniform.

It was also an aggravating feature of the claim that Claire was the one to end the relationship, not PC Powell, which suggests that the relationship would have continued but for Claire’s realisation that the relationship was an abuse of PC Powell’s power.

In the circumstances, I concluded that this was an appropriate case for an award of aggravated damages around  twice the basic award and therefore expected Claire to recover between £8000 and £10,500 in aggravated damages.

Exemplary damages

There were also a number of features of this case that I considered made it an appropriate case for an award of exemplary damages.

While potentially the type of conduct involved in this case could give rise to exemplary damages on its own since an admission of liability for misfeasance in public office necessarily amounted to an admission that the officer acted with malice or bad faith, what really strengthened Claire’s claim for exemplary damages was the fact that PC Powell had abused other victims, which suggested that he was allowed to act with impunity, by his superiors  and further that PC Powell had a previous similar misconduct finding against him from 2008 but was nevertheless still serving, and yet further that rather than setting up a complicated ‘honey trap’ operation West Mercia could and should have contacted Claire much earlier so as to prevent or at least minimize PC Powell’s involvement with her.

This means that not only did PC Powell abuse his power but West Mercia Police knew that there was a risk of him doing so and took no or no appropriate action to prevent PC Powell from serving and/or protecting women to whom he posed a risk.  It appears no steps whatsoever, beyond the bare misconduct finding, which amounted to a ‘slap on the wrist’ had been taken to ensure that PC Powell would be prevented from abusing his powers and causing harm to vulnerable women.  It beggars belief that PC Powell was permitted not only continuing as a serving police officer but was specifically allowed to deal with vulnerable victims of domestic abuse on his own, taking into account his history.

In the circumstances, I concluded that despite the exceptional nature of the award, there was a real prospect that a Court would award exemplary damages to reflect the clear abuse of PC Powell’s power and the failure by West Mercia Police to prevent PC Powell from abusing his powers, in spite of his known history, and furthermore for the length of time it took for PC Powell to be investigated and thereafter convicted, which necessarily caused further distress to Claire. I felt that Claire could well recover exemplary damages of around £10,000.

Conclusions

I considered Claire was likely to recover between £4000 and £7000 in basic damages/damages for personal injury, £1000 in special damages. £10,500 in aggravated damages and around £10,000 in exemplary damages, i.e. a total of £25,500 – £28,500.

Settlement

At an early stage of the case and without sight of any medical evidence, West Mercia Police offered £3,000 in settlement.  On my advice, Claire rejected this offer.  After medical evidence was commissioned and full details of her claim were presented, West Mercia Police failed to  respond.  In the circumstances, I issued court proceedings. West Mercia Police instructed external solicitors and over several months, further offers of settlement were made (and rejected) – £9000 and £15000 – until eventually I was able to successfully negotiate a settlement of £25,000.

Both Claire and I were incredibly frustrated by the drawn out process that West Mercia Police forced us to adopt, in Claire’s words “rubbing salt in the wound”, but ultimately delighted with the settlement.   I am really pleased that having achieved justice in what she described to me as a ‘David & Goliath’ situation she is now able to move on with her life.

Calculating Compensation

As can be seen from the above, calculating compensation in a claim against the police is not straightforward, and could be a minefield for a person who does not have the advice of a specialist police claims lawyer.

Awards of ‘basic’ damages are often modest in cases of police misconduct if the physical injuries inflicted are not severe, notwithstanding the reprehensible nature of the wrongdoing, and therefore it is essential that the tools of the civil law, in the form of an injured person’s right to ‘aggravated’ and ‘exemplary’ damages are fully utilised to achieve a fair and just amount of compensation.

After all, an injury suffered ‘accidentally’ is not the same as one deliberately inflicted through police assault, abuse, false imprisonment or other form of misconduct.

As the conduct of both West Midlands and West Mercia police show in the cases of Chris and Claire, the police will normally start by offering a low award of ‘basic’ damages only to try to buy the case off cheaply, and the advice and assistance of an experienced practitioner in this area of law, such as myself, is essential to understand how to obtain aggravated and exemplary awards, and properly hold the police to account for their wrongdoing.

Contact me for help with your civil actions against the police compensation claim by completing the online form on this page.

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About iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.
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