By Iain Gould, solicitor and specialist in civil actions against the police
Following an arrest, even if the initial grounds for a valid lawful arrest are satisfied, the law requires that the Police must justify detention minute-by-minute. A perfectly lawful detention can become unlawful (and therefore constitute false imprisonment) if the Police exceed their Statutory Powers set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, for example, if a person is detained for an excessive amount of time or if statutory reviews of detention are not undertaken.
I recently concluded a claim on behalf of my client “Tracy Wilkes” (name changed) where an initially lawful arrest ultimately led to a payment for false imprisonment.
My client had been involved in a dispute with a neighbour and the Police were called.
In response 3 officers of Gloucestershire Constabulary attended. My client reported to the officers that she had been assaulted by a female neighbour.
My client’s neighbour made a counter allegation of assault against my client, supported by her partner.
In the circumstances, the officers arrested both women on suspicion of assault and both were then transported to the local Police Station.
Upon her presentation to the Custody Officer, the detention of my client was authorised for the purposes of carrying out enquiries into the offence, conducting an interview and for statements to be obtained, there being insufficient evidence at that time to justify a charge immediately.
By 14.00h, (several hours after Tracy’s arrest) conduct of the investigation was passed to a Police Sergeant.
As a result of a review of the investigation, the Sergeant determined that a prosecution was not appropriate and that a ‘Restorative Justice’ disposal would be sufficient.
During the early evening, my client reluctantly engaged in a ‘Restorative Justice’ meeting, together with her neighbour.
My client was not requested to sign any documentation related to the Restorative Justice meeting and was ultimately released from Custody at 18.45h.
Whilst the initial period of her detention was lawful, it was clear to me that the overall length of detention was unnecessarily and unreasonably prolonged.
Section 37 of PACE is clear that further detention can only be authorised if there are reasonable grounds for believing that detention without charge is necessary
- to secure or preserve evidence relating to an offence for which the suspect under arrest or
- to obtain evidence by questioning to secure/preserve evidence.
In this case, the Custody Sergeant assessed that a prosecution was not appropriate and that further detention was necessary to complete the ‘Restorative Justice process’.
Given that it was not anticipated that further evidence was to be acquired, the continued detention of my client to achieve the ‘Restorative Justice process’ was unlawful and on that basis she was awarded compensation.
It is clear that the Police had grossly exceeded their powers of detention. The function of detention in police custody is to allow a proper investigation if a suspected crime to be carried out. Here the Custody Sergeant and his colleagues had taken it upon themselves to go beyond police functions of investigation into setting up a quasi-court in the police station, and setting themselves in the rule of Judges, detaining Tracy (and her neighbour) for the purposes of passing judgement on them, which in this case was the enforced ‘restorative justice’ meeting.