When is it too late to claim against the police? (Part 1)

The law of England and Wales (specifically The Limitation Act 1980) imposes various time limits in which an individual can bring a claim. Once the limitation period has passed, the Defendant can argue that any subsequent claim should be struck out.

The rationale behind the imposition of time limits is to ensure justice is  properly and promptly served; that it would be contrary to public policy if an individual or organisation is perpetually exposed to the threat of litigation for a wrongful act. The theory has it, that with the passage of time, memories fade, evidence can be lost, witnesses are difficult to trace and it is unfair to ‘ambush’ a proposed Defendant with a claim many years, or even decades, after the wrong allegedly occurred.  Most people would agree to the ‘common sense’ basis of this approach; that it is right to require Claimants to ‘get on’ with their claims within a reasonable time frame, and if not, to draw a line under their right to claim, so that everybody has clarity and can ‘move on’ with their lives.

Of relevance to Police claims, the limitation period for claims for false imprisonment, assault and/or battery, trespass, malicious prosecution and/or misfeasance in public office is 6 years, or 3 years if personal injury is claimed (unless the Claimant is a child or a patient being treated under the Mental Health Act 1983).

I am often contacted by clients who have been wronged by the Police sometime in the past but who have for a variety of reasons not yet taken any action.

Irrespective of the facts or merits of the case, the first question I must ask myself therefore  is, is the claim in time?

In late October 2016, Mr B contacted me having read my regular internet blog.  He had been arrested nearly 6 years earlier and wanted to bring a civil claim against the Police.   The fact of his arrest still rankled him and as a man of hitherto exemplary character he was concerned that his personal data was still retained by the Police.

On 7 October 2010,  Mr B had been asked to give a young woman a lift.  He barely knew the woman having only met her on one previous occasion.  As far as Mr B was concerned, the journey was uneventful.

Then a month later on the 4 November 2010, Mr B  was at home when two Police Officers of the Metropolitan Police attended and requested admittance.

Mr B was told that  the officers had attended to discuss information regarding the woman.  Mr B feared that the Officers were about to deliver unfortunate news about her well- being, however  Mr B was then told he was under arrest on the basis that the woman had reported to Police that in return for free lifts, Mr B  had tried to extract sexual services from her.

Mr B was searched, manhandled and then escorted to his local Police Station where his detention was authorised.  The Custody Record states that Mr B  had been arrested for breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act,

 (1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place.

A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale (currently £1000).

It is self evident that Section 5 will be used in cases which amount to less serious incidents of anti-social behaviour.

The circumstances of Mr B’s arrest were said to be that “an allegation [had been] made by female who stated that on 7 October 2010, (Mr B) gave her a lift in his car as a minicab.  At the end of the journey (Mr B)  is alleged to have said that instead of payment “You can give me a wank”.  This caused alarm and distress to the victim”.

The reason to arrest was said to be “to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the detained person”.

The reason for detention was said to be to “obtain evidence by questioning” and the grounds for detention were said to be “so the DP can be interviewed on tape regarding the allegation”.   Mr B was searched (again) and then obliged to provide a fingerprint and DNA sample before being escorted to a cell and later interviewed.

After over 7 hours in custody,  Mr B was released on conditional bail (that he not contact the woman directly or indirectly) and to re-attend on 22 November 2010, while further enquiries were carried out.

On the 15 November 2010,  Mr B was contacted by the investigating officer and advised that he would face no further action.

Mr B’s first reaction to the news was sheer relief.  Although Mr B  disputed the allegation, he recognised that it was his word against the woman’s and that the Police had a duty to investigate alleged crimes and that investigation could include arrest.  Mr B however felt wronged and he therefore  set about investigating the criteria for a lawful arrest.

Following review, Mr B was of a mind that he had an arguable case against the Met for false imprisonment on the basis that he shouldn’t have been arrested but instead dealt with by voluntary interview.

Sadly, at about this time Mr B took ill and he did not feel fit enough to pursue a case until  he contacted me nearly 6 years later.

Given the date of arrest, I knew that limitation was about to expire.  Mr B had been arrested on 4 November 2010.  Limitation would therefore expire on 4 November 2016.  His claim was therefore in time; but only just.  But I also had to be satisfied that there was merit in his case.  This necessitated  an initial assessment as to prospects.  Although I was satisfied that the Police would easily establish that they had reasonable suspicion to arrest, I struggled to see how they would be able to prove that objectively, it was necessary to arrest Mr B.

According to the Custody Record, which Mr B had applied for and kept, the Police said that the necessity to arrest Mr B was to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or the conduct of the detained person.  The offence had occurred about 1 month before.  My client did not know the woman’s name or where she lived.  The allegation, whilst unpleasant, was not of an extremely serious nature.  Mr B was easily identifiable and traced. He was compliant and co- operative when approached by the Police. On that basis, why was formal arrest necessary?  To my mind, it simply wasn’t and the arresting Officer had failed to consider if the necessary objectives could have been met by less intrusive means, i.e. voluntary interview.

Following instruction, I therefore immediately issued Court proceedings.  Relevant papers were sent to the Court on 28 October 2016, received by the Court on 31 October 2016 and then issued on the 8 November 2016, so that proceedings were brought in time. (Although the issue date was 8 November, which was after the 6th anniversary of the arrest on 4 November, the relevant date for the purposes of the Limitation Act is the date on which the papers are received by the Court for issue – in this case, 31 October. This is to allow for the fact that Court backlogs often mean that it is weeks after a Claimant attempts to commence proceedings that the Court staff are able to get around to officially ‘opening’ the case).

Having issued Court proceedings, Mr B had 4 months to serve those proceedings.  That gave me sufficient time to finalise my investigations and draft and submit a formal letter of claim.

As is ‘par for the course’, following their own internal investigations, the Metropolitan Police denied liability.

Notwithstanding the denial, I was of the opinion that Mr B had reasonable prospects of successfully establishing that his arrest had been unlawful and therefore with Mr B’s authority, I served Court proceedings upon the Met.

Mr B realised that by serving Court proceedings, he was exposing himself to the risk of a substantial costs order should the claim fail (indeed the Metropolitan Police subsequently advised that they would likely incur costs of around £15,000.00)

The Met filed a Defence and, as is their standard practice, liability was robustly denied.  The case was transferred to Central London County Court.

Mr B  had been arrested and detained for only a few hours.  Notwithstanding their denial, the Met Police subsequently offered to settle his claim for £1,250.00.  Mr B accepted. In truth, his claim wasn’t worth much in monetary terms. But financial compensation was not of significance to Mr B.  What was far more important was vindication and a sense of justice restored.

The fact of settlement will now greatly assist Mr B in his efforts to have his personal details and data deleted from Police Record Systems.

Mr B had approached me in the nick of time. In another 2 weeks he would have been too late to bring a claim. Furthermore Mr B was able to rely upon my expertise and judgment. Many firms have a strict code which prevents them from taking on cases where limitation will expire within  the next 6 – 12 months which means that perfectly meritorious claims are rejected and not pursued. I however always adopt a flexible approach, and assess each individual case on its own merits, no matter how close it is to the limitation ‘cut off point’.

Indeed, I have, when appropriate, taken on and won  cases which have actually passed the 3 year limitation period for incidents of wrongful arrest or assault occasioning physical (or mental) injury.  There is discretion in the law for such cases to be allowed to proceed if there are good reasons for the delay and I will write about these, and other exceptions to the Limitation Act, in my next blog.

To conclude this blog, however, I will leave you with the following kind words that Mr B wrote to me –

“Although small beer for you perhaps, for me the positive settlement of this case draws a line under an unhappy episode and brings a sense of closure. Your initial judgment has been proved correct and I cannot recommend too highly the service I have received from you and your team”.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.