I previously blogged about situations where on the back of intelligence the Police execute a Search Warrant following application to a Magistrates’ Court.
In the last blog I referred to a case where the Police raided the wrong house, but what about situations where they attend the right house but the house is now lived in by a family wholly unconnected with the object of the search?
After months and months of saving up, my clients Anthony and his partner Jane were able to purchase a 3 bedroom house in Liverpool. The house was in something of a state and over a 3 month period, they paid for renovations before finally moving in in December 2015 with their 2 children.
Unbeknown to them on the 15 January 2016 a Search Warrant was issued by a District Judge at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court upon Police application, permitting the entry and search of the said premises for cash, betting slips and mobile phones.
On the morning of the 28 January 2016, Officers of Merseyside Police set out to execute the Search Warrant.
On this occasion, both Anthony and Jane were in bed at the premises asleep. Their 2 children then aged 7 years old and 18 months were also asleep in adjoining bedrooms.
At approximately 06.59 hours 6 uniformed Police Officers attended.
Entry was gained to the rear garden by force to prevent any escape from the rear. Entry to the house was then sought via the front door which was found to be locked.
In the circumstances, a ‘Method of Entry Team’ forced the door open with an Enforcer (basically a battering ram), called “Breach” and officers then entered the property which they found to be in darkness.
Anthony and Jane were awoken by the noise and got out of bed.
Such was the unexpected nature of the incident, Anthony and Jane initially believed that they were the target of dangerous criminal offenders.
Following entry, the officers proceeded upstairs and entered into Anthony and Jane’s bedroom where they were both “secured”. An officer asked “Where’s Bill Sykes?” The officers then ordered that Anthony and Jane to dress and proceed downstairs.
Simultaneously, an officer entered the bedroom of their 7 year old son waking him and causing immediate and immense distress to the boy and another Police Officer entered the bedroom of his 18 month old brother, before removing him from his cot, resulting in an outburst of hysteria from the infant.
The whole family were understandably very upset and distressed.
Anthony and Jane proceeded downstairs as directed. They were given a copy of the Warrant and realised that the officers were searching for the previous occupant of the premises. Anthony and Jane explained that they had purchased the property from the main suspect’s mother in August 2015 and that they had moved in in December 2015. Jane then produced documentation to confirm both her own identity and that of Anthony and their ownership of the premises. After 20 minutes or so, it was apparent that the officers accepted Anthony and Jane’s account.
Despite Anthony and Jane providing the said evidence, the Warrant only being issued for specific evidentiary items and the officers realising that Anthony and Jane were the current owners of the premises and therefore not who they were looking for, Anthony and Jane continued to be detained during which time they were asked questions regarding their source of income, the nature of their employment and the purchase price of the premises. Furthermore, checks were carried out on the premises’ utility meters to ensure that they were operating without interference. To add further insult, one of the officers present remarked that Anthony and Jane should regard themselves “lucky” that the search of the premises was not accompanied by television crews, a feature of other searches which had taken place that day. In all, Anthony and Jane were detained for approximately 1 hour.
Such was the force with which entry was gained, the front door was damaged beyond repair. Anthony and Jane were required to purchase a replacement door at a cost of £900, money for which was not readily available and had to be borrowed. As a result, it was not until 31 March 2016 that the front door was finally replaced. Further, forced entry caused damage to the interior plaster around the door frame. Damage was also caused to the back gate and fencing panels.
As a result of the trauma and anxiety which had been caused by the disturbance to the premises, Jane was unable to attend for work that day. Likewise their 7 year old son had to be kept home from school.
The whole incident took place in front of Anthony and Jane’s neighbours causing further embarrassment particularly as the family had only just moved in to the house.
Subsequently Anthony and Jane discovered that the search at the premises and other addresses that morning was the culmination of a lengthy Police investigation, spanning several months. Despite careful planning and preparation which might be expected for such an operation (part of which was being ‘televised’), there had been a complete failure to check and confirm current occupancy of the premises.
Begrudgingly, Anthony and Jane were provided with an apology from Merseyside Police.
Due to their outrage at the treatment they had received, Anthony and Jane instituted a formal complaint and contacted myself to pursue a claim on their behalf.
Ordinarily, the victim of such a raid could allege trespass, assault and false imprisonment (as in the case of Mr and Mrs S reported here), but here, the officers had entered and searched the correct address, the address that was identified in the Search Warrant and had executed the Warrant correctly.
In the circumstances, the Police could rely on Section 6 of the Constables Protection Act 1750 and were thereby protected from a lawsuit. In short, in the absence of any information to suggest that the Warrant was in any way defective or that it had been executed incorrectly, the Police had a complete defence to any proposed claim for trespass and associated wrongdoing notwithstanding the fact that Anthony and Jane were completely innocent.
So if an action for trespass, assault and false imprisonment was bound to fail, how could Anthony and Jane seek redress? Following review, I advised Anthony and Jane to bring a claim under the Human Rights Act and specifically a breach of their right to private and family life as protected by Article 8.
Breach of Article 8 of ECHR
Article 8 provides:
Right to respect for private and family life.
- Everyone has the right to respect of his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
- There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise to his right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Once an interference with rights to private and family life and respect for the home has been proved, the public authority must then prove that the interference was in accordance with the law, in pursuance of a legitimate aim and necessary in a democratic society.
It was clear to me that if proper enquiries had been made and the facts of those enquiries had been properly reported, the Police would have concluded that in early January 2016, there was no reasonable or probable cause to apply for a Search Warrant. In other words, the Police had failed to carry out basic steps to verify the connection between the address and the offence and suspect under investigation. The resulting Police action which caused Anthony and Jane considerable fear and alarm was wholly unreasonable and disproportionate and sufficient to constitute an interference with Anthony and Jane’s rights under Article 8.
I’m sure that it was on this basis that following investigation Merseyside Police admitted the breach and agreed to pay compensation.
Both Anthony and Jane and their 7 year old son were traumatised by the incident and I was able to arrange for them to see a Psychologist who recommended that they undergo a course of CBT. Subsequently, I am pleased to report that settlement terms have just been agreed with Anthony and Jane receiving total compensation of £17,500. Their son’s case is presently ongoing.
The Importance of the Human Rights Act
This case really brings home the important part which the Human Rights Act plays in the proper functioning of a modern democratic society. We often hear negative comments about the Human Rights Act from Conservative politicians such as David Cameron and Michael Gove and newspaper barons such as Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, who wish to see it repealed on the basis that it enshrines ‘political correctness gone mad’ and gives too many rights to criminals, suspected terrorists and others (although Mr Dacre’s list of undesirables probably also includes celebrities as he was particularly concerned about the Human Rights Act reinforcing peoples’ rights to privacy against snooping journalists).
However, I am confident that the Human Rights Act in the hands of the fair, balanced and generally conservative British judiciary is overwhelmingly a positive rather than a negative tool, and this case I have reported above shows how it was absolutely necessary to ensure that a young family received fair and just compensation for the wrong they had suffered.
Stories such as that of Anthony and Jane showing the real benefit and protections to family and private life that are provided by the Human Rights Act are little reported, and indeed are probably deliberately overlooked by the Tabloids when they are whipping up the next round of fury against the legislation and supposed ‘PC – madness’ or ‘compensation culture’.
I would urge us all to be very careful about letting the Government abolish the Human Rights Act and thereby roll back some of the most important protections we have against unjust treatment by the State, or undue interference with our private lives.
After all, where did the European Convention of Human Rights, the founding charter which is implemented in British law by the Human Rights Act come from? It was drafted in the immediate aftermath of World War II by a leading British lawyer and Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyle, with the express intention of ensuring the civil liberties necessary to protect effective political democracy against the dangers of fascism and the totalitarianism that were deeply rooted across the continent. These civil liberties arose from the strongest traditions of British liberty in the UK, going back to the Bill of Rights, Magna Carta and all that the English Common Law had done over many centuries to extend those rights.
So the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights (which has nothing, by the way, to do with the European Union) far from being alien to British justice were from their inception part and parcel of it, and remain a linchpin (as this case shows) of the proper functioning of a just and peaceable civil society.
Don’t let anyone throw your rights away!