Why an Acquittal Does Not Equate to a Guaranteed Claim Against the Police

Many of my clients who have been the victims of Police abuse of power – often having been assaulted/ battered by the Police during the course of a wrongful arrest – come to me shortly after they have been found ‘not guilty’ of the criminal charges brought against them arising from the incident. Typically, in these cases, the victim of Police violence has been accused of obstructing/assaulting a police officer or resisting arrest, and the first hurdle they face is avoiding conviction in the Magistrates or Crown Court.

Often when such clients instruct me, they are understandably relieved –not to say elated- that the ordeal of their prosecution is over, and are keen to turn the tables on those who they say have falsely accused them. However, my first job is to disabuse them of any assumption – however understandable this might be on a ‘common sense’ basis – that the fact of their acquittal (which might be accompanied by harsh criticism of one or more of the Police Officers by the judge or magistrates, in terms of the officers’ use of force or honesty and integrity) – equates to a judgement by the Court that the Police actions were unlawful, or that criminal judicial findings can be relied upon as evidence in support of a civil claim for compensation.

Whilst a conviction for an offence can be relied upon as evidence in civil proceedings (see Section 11 of the Civil Evidence Act 1968) – which is why attempting to sue the Police in the civil courts after you have been found guilty in the criminal court is generally a non-starter – the opposite does not apply. A ‘not guilty’ verdict only means that there is no blemish against the claimant’s character, it does not equate to a vice-versa ‘conviction’ of the officers for any offence, and the comments of the judge or magistrates, along with their findings of fact, are not admissible evidence in any other court.

The rule from Hollington v Hewthorn [1943] KB 857 restated in Rogers v Hoyle [2014] EWCA Civ 257 confirms that the findings of a previous tribunal (including the Magistrates Court and Crown Court) are not admissible in future civil proceedings (with the exception of convictions, as noted above). Of course, this makes sense when you consider that the burden of proof test in the criminal and civil justice systems is very different: in the former, the prosecution must prove their case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, whereas in the latter, the person bringing the claim merely has to prove that their version of events is likely to be true ‘on the balance of probabilities’ i.e more likely than not, no matter how slim the difference, or how finely balanced the evidence is for each side. Furthermore, the role of a judge at any court or tribunal is to come to an independent decision based on the facts presented before them – not based on the opinions of a different judge in another case, albeit one which may have been dealing with the very same incident.

If a person is accused of assaulting a Police officer, and found not guilty, that is in legal terms the Magistrates or Crown court finding that the prosecution case has not been proven beyond all reasonable doubt – it certainly does not automatically follow that the County Court will then find that person was a victim of unlawful arrest or assault and battery. In other words, if the Police officer can persuade the Court that it is 60% likely that he was in the right, and my client was in the wrong – that is not high enough to secure a criminal conviction – but it is high enough to defeat a civil claim arising from the same facts.

Take for example the case of my client Paul Ponting. Paul was arrested and charged with the following offences-

  1. Use of threatening/ abusive words or disorderly behavior likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, contrary to S.5 Public Order Act 1986.
  2. That he assaulted PS H___ with intent to resist arrest.

Paul was subsequently formally acquitted of all charges following trial at Chorley Magistrates’ Court, at which the following findings were reached-

  1. In regards to the allegation of a Section 5 Public Order offence, the Court found that whilst Paul’s language towards PS H___ and PC W_____  may have been intemperate, he posed no threat to himself or any others including the Police Officers.  His behaviour was not disorderly.  In the view of the Court there was no-one present on this occasion, or nearby, who would have been alarmed or distressed at Paul’s behaviour prior to the moment PS H____ decided to arrest him. Therefore there was no Public Order offence.
  1. That in regards to the charge of assaulting a Police Constable (PS H___) in the execution of his duty, that the Officer when the struggle between himself and Paul occurred was not acting in the execution of his duty as the Officer did not have reasonable grounds for believing that he must immediately arrest Paul, as Paul’s behaviour was not threatening.  In this regard it was noted that in his evidence PS H____ had admitted that he did not ask Paul to go back indoors prior to arrest, nor did he warn him that if he continued in his perceived behaviour he would be arrested.

Notwithstanding these findings, it was entirely open for Lancashire Police to dispute the civil claim which I subsequently presented on behalf of Paul and to argue that, under the civil test, Paul’s arrest and the uses of force against him by the officers, were entirely lawful.

Paul was not able to rely upon the statements of the Magistrates as evidence in support of his claim – they were the findings of a ‘previous tribunal’. Therefore, the whole case had to be re-fought and all of the evidence and witnesses tested again in the new forum of County Court proceedings. The outcome in the Magistrates court only allowed Paul to pursue a civil claim with some prospects of success – it certainly did not guarantee success, as evidenced by the fervor with which Lancashire Police disputed his claim, before ultimately settling Paul’s claim after several years of litigation for damages of £35,000 (and an apology).

A person who has been found not guilty therefore, in a case where logic would lead one to conclude that if they did not act unlawfully, then the Police officers accusing them did, cannot rest on their laurels at the conclusion of the criminal process, or rely upon the warm words of the Judge discharging them. In terms of a claim for compensation the battle is not half won, but remains to be won in its entirety, from scratch; fortunately, those are battles in which I enjoy every cut and thrust!

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.