Taking British Transport Police to Task

Cases which go to Trial are by definition the most difficult to win; those in which your opponent thinks he has the best chance of success, refuses an out of Court settlement, and throws all of his resources – massive resources in the case of a Police Force of course – into defeating the Claimant; a real David and Goliath conflict.  For those cases to be pursued to a successful conclusion, it is essential for my clients and myself as their lawyer to have the courage and belief to see the fight through until the end, no matter what is thrown at us by the Police in every attempt to frustrate the course of justice.

My most recent victory was especially satisfying as my client had suffered so much as a result of Police abuse/ misuse of their powers, and had shown tremendous courage not to run away and hide but pursue the case even as far as the often traumatic experience of having to re- live events in front of a Jury whilst being subject to hostile cross- examination from a Police barrister.

In the case in question, my client, Hayley Cunningham (details used with permission) and her husband, both hard- working teachers, had in May 2012 an opportunity for a rare night out together to celebrate her birthday, with grandparents looking after the kids. After enjoying a meal, during which time Hayley had only four glasses of alcohol, they commenced their journey home by underground train. Unfortunately, on reaching the platform they were advised by a station employee that they had missed the last train, and would have to catch a cab instead; my client and her husband were unfamiliar with the train station.  Hayley’s husband opened the nearest exit door.

The staircase in which my client and her husband found themselves was steep and poorly lit; they had to ascend over 160 steps to reach the main station concourse at ground level. Unexpectedly having to climb 160 steps would be an exhausting task for even the fittest amongst us, let alone Hayley who, naturally tired at the end of an evening out (which had followed a busy ‘end of term’ day in school), also suffered from a form of Lupus and from Raynaud’s disease, conditions which cause her to suffer episodes of joint pain, fatigue, low blood pressure and dizziness. It appears that just such an episode was brought on by the exertion of Hayley’s climb; by the time she neared the top of the stairs she was breathless and dizzy, and had to sit down to rest, her head ‘spinning’.  Hayley’s husband continued the short distance up to the concourse, to get help.

Unfortunately, the ‘help’ which Hayley’s husband encountered was in the form of PC T of the British Transport Police. PC T returned with Hayley’s husband to find her short of breath and in obvious distress, sitting down in the stairwell, but rather than approaching her with care and compassion the Officer was immediately aggressive and confrontational, accusing Hayley of being “inebriated”. Refusing to listen to her explanation of the situation, PC T spoke over Hayley in a rude and demeaning way.

Hayley managed to get to her feet and struggle up the remaining steps unaided, but on stepping out onto the brightly lit concourse, felt faint and dizzy once more and had to sit down, her vulnerable condition now being severely aggravated by the fact that PC T was berating her for alleged drunkenness and was trying to chase her out of the station on the grounds that it was closing soon, rather than simply allowing her a few moments to get her breath back. Hayley was understandably appalled by the Officer’s behaviour and spoke up to protest about his attitude – though at no point did she swear or use foul language. She managed to get to her feet again, reproaching PC T for his rudeness and trying to explain about her medical condition, to no avail. In any event, Hayley  and her husband were now making their way towards the station exit, and were only a short distance from the door when, possibly in response to hearing Hayley state that she was going to report him for his unprofessional behaviour, PC T escalated the situation beyond the bounds of common sense by producing a pair of handcuffs and proceeding to chain my helpless client’s hands together announcing to his colleague “She’s winding me up now, I’m arresting her.”

Hayley was in a state of total shock, distraught and sobbing. Her husband’s protests were to no avail as PC T and his colleague bundled her into a police car and drove her away, with her wrists in severe discomfort from the tightness of the handcuffs, which, even had there been justification to arrest her, were totally unnecessary. At no point had Hayley been violent or aggressive. Indeed, when I subsequently reviewed the CCTV footage from the station concourse I was shocked at PC T’s aggression towards Hayley given the massive disparity in their size and strength.  Hayley is a slightly built woman, only 4 foot 11 inches tall, whilst PC T, over 6 feet in height, looms over her, encased in his body armour. His use of any force against her was completely unjustified.

And so too was her arrest – PC T did not even inform Hayley what she was being arrested for, although we now know it was for alleged “drunk and disorderly” behaviour.

Hayley described her feelings at this point as follows –

“By the time I arrived at the Police Station I was shaking. I couldn’t breathe, it was as if I wasn’t in my own body, I just lost it. I was fading in and out of reality”

Hayley now faced the extremely traumatic experience of being processed in a police station as a suspected criminal, subjected to the indignities of a body search and being stripped of her possessions, before being locked, feeling isolated and intimidated in a cold and dirty cell (the toilet roll was floating in the toilet bowl). Her wedding ring and her dress had been taken away from her, and she was forced to wear an ‘all in one’ paper body suit. For a woman of impeccable character, with no previous experience of the criminal justice system, this was all the more traumatic.

Eventually, having been incarcerated all night, Hayley was released from custody the following morning. Prior to her release, the police asked her to accept a “fixed penalty notice” for drunk and disorderly behaviour – which she absolutely refused to do. She knew she had done nothing wrong; but this was the first point at which Hayley ‘s courage and strength of character were put to the test, for she knew that by standing up for what was right – and indeed she was brave enough to do that now, even after the mental torment of being imprisoned in a cell all night in humiliating and degrading conditions – she was exposing herself to a prosecution in the Magistrates Court at which she had every fear PC T would tell lies about her behaviour and try to deceive the Court .

Hayley made this decision to fight for justice, knowing full well that she and her husband would now face many months of litigation leading up to trial and that the trial itself would be a very stressful event likely to put even more pressure on her fragile state of health. She was aware she would not qualify for Legal Aid. She was aware that if she was ultimately convicted this could severely damage her career as a teacher, as the conviction would show up on an enhanced CRB certificate.

In my Hayley’s own words –

“The easy way out would have been to simply accept the notice and pay the fine. However, I was brought up with a strong conviction of what is right and wrong. My arrest was wrong. I was determined to fight”.

A Long Fight for Justice

Some six month after my Hayley’s arrest, her case went to trial at the Magistrates Court. The whole process of preparing for and then attending the trial was incredibly stressful for Hayley and there were times when she felt understandably overwhelmed and physically sick.

She felt as though her personality had been altered as a result of this incident; she found herself to be much more anxious at home and in work, and vulnerable to panic attacks, when previously she had always prided herself on being a strong and confident person. She had to take time away from work, and felt that she was letting down her colleagues and pupils as a result. Nevertheless, she fought on.

It became clear that PC T was going to maintain the lies he had told about Hayley, and was going to claim that she was drunk and had sworn at him, all of which she denied.

On the day of the trial itself, Hayley’s resolve was tested once again when the CPS prosecutor offered to discontinue the proceedings if she accepted a “bind over” (to be of good behaviour or to keep the peace). If she accepted, she was advised that no conviction would be recorded. Her own Barrister, who in fairness had only been instructed the night before disappointingly seemed to lack conviction in her case, and recommended that Hayley accept. She refused, knowing she had done nothing wrong and determined that PC T should not get away with what he had done. The trial went ahead and I will let Hayley tell you the result in her own words-

“After evidence, the Magistrates retired before returning to declare that I was not guilty.  I was so relieved.  I was tearful and emotional”.

But this was just the beginning of her fight for justice. Hayley had not given up, she hadn’t taken the ‘easy’ options – even when alone and vulnerable in the police station, even when advised by her barrister to take the ‘bind over’ – and she had cleared her name. But she knew she was still entitled to restitution, and she could have no proper sense of justice until she had held PC T to account for his actions. It was time for her to turn the tables and put him on trial.

The next step Hayley took, therefore, was to lodge a formal complaint with the British Transport Police about PC T’s behaviour. She was visited by an officer from the Professional Standards Department and gave a full statement about what had happened. The officer took this away, and an investigation was commenced; 6 months later, to Hayley’s total dismay, she received a 14 page report from the Police rejecting her complaint and totally exonerating PC T.

This was very much a case of hurtful insult being added to a deeply felt injury. Hayley was at this time still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened to her – locked in a police cell and dragged to court to face charges that could have wrecked her professional career – and already felt that she was no longer the person she had been before this incident. In her own words-

“I did not feel like me anymore, that somehow I had been stolen”.

Hayley’s sense of self worth, her pride and confidence, her relationship with her husband, children and friends were all affected by this shadow hanging over her. Although she had been found not guilty at trial, she couldn’t stop thinking about the injustice of what PC T had so casually and arrogantly done to her, and now – with the dismissal of her complaint by the PSD – it felt as though he had ‘won’ again, and all the bad feelings came back. Hayley continued to feel degraded as a person, and now almost gave up – burying her head in the sand and trying to forget about what had happened. This did not ultimately make her feel any better however; she was just bottling up these very hurtful feelings.

Hayley had in fact already contacted me about bringing a claim, but when the PSD report arrived, she was so demoralised that she almost gave up on the case, failing to answer my letters or telephone calls.

For many months I had no contact from her, but I did eventually resume contact and persuaded her to continue.

Notwithstanding the complaint findings, I knew from the papers I had seen that Hayley had a good case, and furthermore, I knew that she was an honest and truthful person who had suffered badly as a result of Police misconduct and deserved to see justice done. I also knew what she did not, from years of long experience, that Police internal complaint investigations are almost invariably biased in favour of the Officer being complained about and their raison d’etre is not a full and frank, impartial investigation into the facts – but an exercise in looking for excuses to cover up Police wrongdoing and let the guilty Officer off the hook.

For that reason, unlike my client, I knew the complaint report probably wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, and the fact that her complaint was dismissed certainly did not mean a claim in the civil courts, heard by a jury of her peers, would be.

Court proceedings were commenced and I set about obtaining medical evidence in relation to the psychological effects of this incident upon Hayley. When the proceedings were served upon the solicitors acting for the British Transport Police, we received no concession or offer of compromise to settle the case, but rather a bold and challenging letter making it clear that BTP intended to fight the case ‘tooth and nail’ all the way to trial –

“We have no doubt that your client is a highly regarded and respectable member of the community…………  However, on the evening of 25 May 2012 and during the early hours of 26 May 2012 your client had too much to drink whilst celebrating her birthday and acted in an uncharacteristic manner which was not befitting of an individual who does so much for her local community. 

Our client has no offers of compensation to make and liability is strongly denied.  Your client’s arrest was lawful and this matter will be vigorously contested. 

Given the strength of our client’s defence ……………… we will seek to enforce our client’s costs against your client in the event that this claim is continued.  If your client pursues a claim for psychological injury then we will regard this as a fraudulent exaggeration.”

With my encouragement and advice, Hayley was strong enough not to be put off by the Police lawyer’s ‘hard ball’ attitude and persevered despite the numerous besmirchments of her honesty and integrity which the Police threw at her as the case continued.

Whilst we had obtained medical evidence from an expert psychiatrist who confirmed that Hayley had suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Police appointed their own psychiatrist who disagreed and did his best to play down the seriousness of her symptoms, arguing that she had only suffered a more minor ‘adjustment disorder’. Hayley felt that the Police psychiatrist had not listened to her properly, and his report contained a high number of factual mistakes, which were never corrected. Nevertheless, she persevered.

The solicitors acting for British Transport Police even went to the length of snooping on Hayley’s Facebook pages and putting together a dossier of social media posts – all from several years after the incident in question – in an attempt to ‘discredit’ her. Whilst Hayley and I were deeply disappointed by the Police lawyer’s invasion of her privacy in this manner, neither of us were concerned about what the Police had ‘found’. It was simply a number of posts – all years after the event- relating to Hayley participating in exercise classes. Nothing out of the ordinary at all; just run-of-the-mill (or should that be treadmill?) group fitness classes, which my client had participated in, in order, partly, to help build up her social confidence and mental health after the terrible effects of her arrest, imprisonment and prosecution. The Police were, in my opinion, quite unscrupulously, now trying to use these ‘posts’ to suggest that Hayley’s dizziness at the top of the railway station steps must have been due to drunkenness rather than constitutional/ health reasons – as if her ability to participate in a planned exercise class (‘on the flat’ in a gymnasium) years later had any relevance to how she was after climbing 160 stairs years before! It was palbable nonsense – but showed the lengths the Police were prepared to go to in order to frustrate Hayley ’s claim, and demoralise her.

But they failed entirely in that attempt; Hayley was not demoralised, but rather further energised by their unscrupulous antics, to fight on for justice. Indeed, I was then able to get the ‘social media’ evidence thrown out at a pre- trial hearing by the Judge, who quite rightly rejected it as irrelevant to the case. Still, the Police did not back down, but neither did Hayley, who after all she had been put through, including now almost 2 years of litigation in the civil courts was more determined than ever to hold the Police to account – and that meant not only PC T, but the whole organisation of the British Transport Police who seemed so determined to shield their Officer and to continue to try to oppress and humiliate Hayley, despite the clear evidence, in my opinion, that she was in the right. As we prepared for trial, Hayley had these words to say –

“I wonder how many people do the police do this to who can’t fight because they’re not strong enough or because of their past.  I feel it is right that I challenge the conduct of PC T on my behalf and for others. My husband and I had committed no crime. We were treated with rudeness and contempt when, if anything, I just needed a few kind words and a moment or two to get myself together. We were on our way out of the station causing no harm to anybody when I was arrested. It was all so unnecessary.”

Putting the Police on Trial

Hayley ‘s claim for compensation against British Transport Police finally went to trial at Liverpool County Court in June 2017. Again, the Police made it clear they had no intention of backing down. Hayley bravely relived the trauma of the experience of her arrest on the stand, and despite being brought to tears by the many unpleasant memories this stirred up, answered the Police barrister’s cross- examination with honesty, integrity and clarity.

Then, after PC T himself had given his evidence, on the fourth day of the trial, we applied for summary Judgment – on the grounds that PC T’s testimony that it was necessary to arrest Hayley “to prevent an offence against public decency” could not, on any reasonable analysis of the evidence, be true. It is not enough for an officer to honestly and reasonably suspect a person to be drunk before arresting her. The person must be behaving in a disorderly manner, not merely ‘drunk’, and furthermore – and crucially – the officer must have an honest and reasonable belief in the necessity to arrest that person, and to deprive them for however long of their liberty, and subject them to imprisonment, as opposed to dealing with the suspected offence by less draconian means.

Here PC T’s case was that Hayley simply had to be arrested to prevent an offence against public decency  – yet he had made no such allegation in his notes at the time of arrest, or when delivering Hayley to the custody sergeant in the police station, nor during the criminal prosecution of her. The first time he had made this assertion was in May 2017 as part of his defence to the claim brought by Hayley.

The criminal law guidelines in Archbold and Halsbury Law both define “offences against public decency” as being grossly scandalous behaviour described as “offending and disgusting”. Even on the Officer’s account of Hayley swearing at him – which she denied – her behaviour could never have amounted to this.

The Judge was persuaded by our arguments on the following key points;

  • That there was no reason for PC T to have suspected Hayley of being drunk – and certainly not of her being ‘disorderly’ – PC T had unreasonably dismissed the explanations given by Hayley and her husband.
  • That Hayley’s arrest was not driven by necessity under the law, or any reasonable apprehension of an offence against ‘public decency’ but rather PC T’s impatience and high- handedness, arising out of his rude, abrupt and dismissive attitude towards Hayley.
  • That any reasonable officer, in PC T’s position, rather than berating Hayley, would simply have allowed her a few minutes grace to exit the closing train station, in view of her clearly being unwell. His act of arresting her, was entirely unreasonable, disproportionate and unnecessary; as epitomised in the fact that he callously handcuffed my helpless client, who had offered no violence whatsoever to him – even on his own account of what occurred.

Accordingly, the Judge granted Hayley Judgment on the 5th day of the trial, bringing the proceedings which had been expected to run to a full 8 days to a conclusion there and then.

In English law, all imprisonment is prima facie unlawful unless and until justified by law. The burden of proof in respect of false imprisonment is therefore on the Police to prove that the totality of the Claimant’s imprisonment from the moment of the arrest to the moment of release was lawful. By cutting the trial short after hearing PC T’s evidence, the Judge found that the Police simply had no prospect of proving that any of Hayley’s imprisonment was lawful.

Hayley’s prime motivation was vindication, not compensation.   Having established liability, British Transport Police now put forward an offer of £25,000 to settle her claim.  Hayley had achieved her goal and rather than trouble the Court any further, decided to accept.

Hayley had won.  She had secured justice; my client knew that after all these years, she had been believed; that the system does work, and that wrongdoing by the Police can be put right. This was what she said to me after the conclusion of the case –

“Thank you so much for believing in me, you’ll never know how much that meant. Without people like you willing to offer support to those who have been wronged, justice would not be possible. The fact you believed in me offered me comfort and gave me the strength to challenge the inappropriate behaviour by people in power, who should be respectful, show integrity and protect. All of which were disregarded in my case causing me 5 years of considerable difficulties and greatly impacted upon my mental health. This not only affected me but also my family. You have now given me the opportunity to put this behind me and continue with my life from where it had stopped 5 years ago. I will always be forever grateful and long may you continue to ensure justice prevails for others who face similar challenges.”

But what I want to say to her is this: it is your self- belief, despite everything the Police threw at you, and all the disappointments and frustrations you suffered, and your bravery at facing up to the lies told by PC T not once but twice in both the Magistrates and then County Court proceedings that was ultimately the key to victory.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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