The tort, or act of civil (as opposed to criminal) wrongdoing, known as “Misfeasance in Public Office” was originally formulated in the 18th Century to address cases in which people with the right to vote (not very many in those far off days) had fallen foul of an electoral returning officer, abusing his power to stop them from voting. These days, it is most often used to regulate the activities of the Police, who are of course all “public officers” and invested with duty, power and responsibility in that role.
Classically, misfeasance in public office has been framed by the Courts as requiring not merely a careless, mistaken or sub-standard exercise of the officer’s powers and duties – but an act of “malice” designed to injure the Claimant. Quite properly, however, case law has developed the concept, so that “malice” in this context includes, as well as deliberately intended harm, harm caused by an officer’s “reckless indifference” whether by act or omission. This encompasses the situation in which an officer, whilst not actively intending to cause harm, is well aware of the possibility of such harm occurring as a by-product of their action (or failure to act) and “carries on regardless” for their own personal benefit – an act of callousness.
For misfeasance to be made out, the officer’s targeted or, alternatively, recklessly malicious act must then result in damage to the Claimant to give rise to an entitlement to compensation, whether in the form of financial loss, loss of liberty, or injury. In a case which I have recently concluded on behalf of my client June Whitaker the damage that was caused by a Police Officer’s selfish disregard of her public duties was manifest and terrible: one of the worst nightmares of any parent would be having to accompany a Police Officer to the mortuary to formally identify the body of their murdered child; but how much worse would it be if the self same Police Officer who accompanied you that day, later recklessly sabotaged the Trial of your child’s murderers, such that their convictions for the killing were overturned? Tragically, that is what happened to June.
June’s son Lynford was murdered in a knife attack in Cardiff in June 2016 when he was 29 years old.
Detective Constable Rebecca Bryant of South Wales Police was assigned to June and her relatives as the Family Liaison Officer.
As the Family Liaison Officer DC Bryant was involved in a number of important early steps in the murder investigation, including, as noted above, accompanying June to the mortuary to identify Lynford’s body.
Three men – Dwayne Edgar, Robert Lainsbury and Jake Whelan were swiftly arrested and charged with Lynford’s murder. The Trial was listed to take place at Cardiff Crown Court in late November 2016.
The Jury for the murder Trial was however fatally flawed, in that one of the Jurors was in fact Lauren Jones, the girlfriend of DC Bryant’s son. Not only DC Bryant and Ms Jones were well aware of each other’s involvement in the case but prior to the commencement of the Trial DC Bryant had sent a text message to Lauren Jones encouraging her to disguise their relationship –
“The Murder trial is put back til 1st. Not that that matters cos they’ll hold u til then if they need to. Remember what I sed though, as long as you don’t know any of the witnesses that’s fine. But u could say ur a teacher in llanederyn but you don’t know or have any dealings with any of them. If u do know any of them though ul have to say but say how u know them. I won’t be there hardly and I’m not a witness anyway so that ok u don’t need to worry bout that. Don’t tell any of them who u r to me tho in case they think I’ve told u about it although u know I haven’t xxx”
DC Bryant and Ms Jones exchanged several other text messages in which they discussed the case, including the fact that Ms Jones knew one of June’s daughters (who was a Mum at the school where Ms Jones taught), but she also chose to withhold this crucial information when she joined the Jury panel. DC Bryant was aware of this fact, and must have known that her own relationship with Lauren Jones was a sufficient fact in itself to disqualify Ms Jones from being a Juror in this particular case but she wilfully withheld this information from her Superior Officers or the Court and instead concentrated her efforts on making mutually beneficial travel arrangements for herself and the woman who was her Quasi daughter-in-law, including the following message sent on 28 November 2016 –
“If ur on the murder ul be finished same time as me most days u can have a lift to mine afterwards if u wanted x”
The Trial of the perpetrators commenced on 1 December 2016. June and several members of her family attended Court that day, accompanied by DC Bryant in her role as Family Liaison Officer. DC Bryant and Ms Jones continued their deception, saying nothing about their knowledge of one another nor the connection between Ms Jones and June’s daughter.
When the Jury was first impanelled one of its members was in fact mother-in-law of another of June’s sons and she naturally identified her relationship to the case and was excused from the Trial. Another Juror was discharged after confirming that they knew a witness who was a friend of one of the men accused of Lynford’s murder. That day, DC Bryant commented to June’s son that his mother-in-law could ‘get done’ if she sat on the Jury. Shockingly however, she and Ms Jones still said nothing about their connection to each other.
Over the following week as the Trial got underway, DC Bryant and Ms Jones exchanged numerous messages referencing attendance at Court. On 6 December the Trial Judge announced a non sitting day for later in the Trial. On the date in question, Ms Jones had a hair appointment and a day out planned with DC Bryant. DC Bryant advised Ms Jones to tell the Usher that she had an important appointment for that date which could not be changed. She further advised Ms Jones to say that it was an appointment that had already been changed once. It appears that this deception was designed solely for the purpose of ensuring that the murder Trial did not get in the way of Ms Jones and DC Bryant’s pre-Christmas socialising.
DC Bryant continued to play an important part in the ongoing criminal proceedings, taking a victim personal statement from June on 10 December in relation to the impact of Lynford’s murder upon June and her family.
On 20 December 2016 the Jury returned guilty verdicts in respect of Dwayne Edgar, Robert Lainsbury and Jake Whelan and they were convicted of Lynford’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
These convictions could not bring Lynford back, but at least June could now begin to move on with her life secure in the knowledge that justice had been done for her son. Tragically, within a matter of weeks the foundations of that justice were already cracking and crumbling and June was about to receive information that would shake her to her core.
In late February 2017, two Officers of South Wales Police attended at June’s home and informed her that one of the perpetrator’s solicitors had discovered that DC Bryant’s son was in a relationship with one of the Jurors (Lauren Jones) and that accordingly the three men’s convictions were going to be appealed. A misconduct investigation was also simultaneously launched into DC Bryant’s conduct. She initially denied to her superiors any knowledge of Lauren Jones, but then admitted the truth.
June was devastated by the news that the convictions might be overturned and on 20 July 2017, after receiving a telephone call from the Police informing her of the increasing likelihood that the convictions would be quashed and that she would have to live through a re-trial of the perpetrators, June took an overdose of medication with the intention of ending her life. Fortunately she was discovered by one of her daughters and rushed to hospital, where her life was saved.
The wheels of the criminal justice system turned slowly but inevitably, and almost a year to the day after June’s attempt to take her own life, in July 2018 the Court of Appeal Criminal Division regretfully quashed the three men’s convictions. June was devastated.
June then had to wait almost another year before, in late March 2019, the re-trial of Edgar, Lainsbury and Whelan concluded at Bristol Crown Court and all three men were convicted of murder for a second time and again sentenced to life imprisonment.
Justice had been done, but at a terrible cost to June’s mental health over an agonising period of over two years from February 2017 to March 2019.
In June 2019, with the wheels of justice again turning ever slowly the misconduct proceedings against DC Bryant concluded and she was dismissed from South Wales Police without notice for gross misconduct in relation to her failure to reveal her relationship with the Juror Lauren Jones; her advice to Ms Jones to withhold relevant information about her hair appointment, and her initial denial to her Superior Officer about her relationship with Ms Jones.
That grossly reckless misconduct by the Officer had not only given Lynford’s murderers an opportunity to escape punishment for their terrible crime, but had almost cost June her own life. The conduct of the Police Officer in this case almost beggars belief.
The panel at DC Bryant’s gross misconduct hearing correctly concluded that her conduct was not a ‘one off’ error of judgment but was in fact a continuing breach of her duty throughout the period from the end of November 2016 to 20 December 2016.
It goes without saying that June was entirely in agreement with the decision to dismiss DC Bryant from the Force, but she was dismayed at the length of time which the process had taken and the fact that throughout the over two years that elapsed between the revelations of February 2017 and the misconduct hearing of June 2019 DC Bryant had been allowed to continue as a serving Police Officer receiving her full salary.
June subsequently instructed me to pursue a claim against The Chief Constable of South Wales Police, who is vicariously liable under the Police Act for DC Bryant’s misconduct. I brought Court proceedings on behalf of June and in late December 2020 South Wales Police admitted liability for negligence on the part of DC Bryant, although they attempted to argue that the Officer had not committed the much more serious tort of misfeasance in public office because she had not intended to sabotage the men’s convictions and did not “foresee the possible adverse consequences that might flow from her actions”. The Police sought to argue that Bryant genuinely thought she did not need to disclose her relationship with Lauren Jones because she (Bryant) was not a witness in the case – despite the fact that she was clearly an integral part of the Police investigative team – and that she did not overlook an ‘obvious risk’.
I strongly rejected that assertion; to argue that DC Bryant, an officer of some 20 years experience on the Force, had merely made an innocent and genuine ‘mistake’ was, frankly, insulting everybody’s intelligence.
The case I brought on behalf of June was on the basis that DC Bryant’s actions were so recklessly indifferent to the obvious likelihood of causing harm to June that they to all intents and purposes were comparable to acts of misfeasance carried out with deliberate malice. Recall that in one of the many text messages DC Bryant had exchanged with her son’s girlfriend, she expressly encouraged the younger woman not to “tell anyone who you are to me”. That was not the act of an innocent person; it was the act of an officer who knew what she was allowing to happen was wrong and highly risky – but simply didn’t care enough to stop – gambling, as it would turn out, with June’s life in the process.
As the Court of Appeal commented in their judgment upon the original trial verdict, any “fair- minded and informed observer would conclude from the facts that there was a real possibility or danger that the juror was biased.”
DC Bryant had willfully ignored the principle that justice must not only be done – it must be seen to be done. Instead, DC Bryant had betrayed her duty as a Police Officer, and had betrayed the very family whose care she had been entrusted with as Liaison Officer all for…what? DC Bryant had acted not for financial or personal gain or out of animus towards the family but, it seems, just in the interest of letting her son’s girlfriend sit on the jury of an ‘exciting case’ and to share this experience with her for their own amusement, or, dare we say it, entertainment.
I have recently concluded June’s claim for a significant sum of money which will now be invested in a Personal Injury Trust for the benefit of herself and her family as she continues along the road of recovery. June was devastated by the loss of her son, and still finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that one of the very people whose job it was to assist her to recover and to heal by helping her through the criminal justice process, in fact tore open the wound again and prolonged June’s anguish for two long years during which she was tormented with thoughts that her son’s murderers might escape punishment for their actions.
Contemplating the atrocious way in which DC Bryant put minor conveniences and satisfactions in her own personal life ahead of those of a family grieving for a murdered brother and son, is a stark reminder of how right it is that Police Officers should be held to account not only for deliberately targeted harm, but all the pain and hurt they can cause by selfish and reckless dereliction of their duty, and abuse of power.