I recently settled a claim against the police for Mr. Thomas of Leicestershire after he was wrongly convicted at court.
Background of this claim against the police
On 9 August 2008 Mr. Thomas was shopping in Morrisons Supermarket.
He came across an officer of Leicestershire Police in full uniform also doing his shopping.
Mr. Thomas approached him and said,
‘There is a 9.2 million pound deficit for the next 3 years and you are here shopping for bloody shoelaces and shoe polish. Do you think this is acceptable?’
The officer flippantly responded that he needed new laces in order to enable him to chase criminals.
Matters then took a rather more sinister turn, with the officer seemingly taking advantage of his police powers to criminalise Mr Thomas simply for having expressed his opinion.
The policeman warned Mr. Thomas that his conduct amounted to a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, i.e. that Mr. Thomas had used ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ and insisted on Mr Thomas providing his full name and address. Mr Thomas obliged giving his name and address, 15 Connemara Road. The officer struggled to spell ‘Connemara’ and asked Mr Thomas to spell it.
Mr. Thomas advised the officer that he would lodge a complaint about the officer’s conduct and promptly visited the nearby Police Station.
As Mr Thomas left the police station, the officer appeared, chased after him on foot with his allegedly broken shoelaces!, and forcefully detained Mr Thomas in what he later described as a ‘vice-like’ grip, before releasing him.
Some 2 months later, Mr. Thomas was charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act and the case proceeded to trial.
The officer provided a statement and accused Mr. Thomas of saying,
‘There is a 3 something million deficit for the tax payers and you’re in here, why aren’t you out in the street dealing with crime.’
‘I’m going to report you for shopping on duty. You’re a bloody waste of money’.
During this encounter, Mr. Thomas was said to be aggressive and intimidating.
Somewhat remarkably, not only was Mr. Thomas prosecuted for his ‘threatening and abusive behaviour’ arising out of this innocuous ‘confrontation’ but he was convicted at trial in February 2009 by the Magistrates.
My client’s defence was hindered by the Police or Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to disclose CCTV footage from the supermarket.
Mr. Thomas appealed and the case proceeded to the Crown Court.
Mr Thomas suffered greatly from the stress of the prosecution and appeal, and the Crown Court hearing had to be adjourned on a number of occasions because Mr. Thomas was deemed medically unfit to stand trial.
Fortunately for Mr. Thomas, in advance of the Appeal Hearing, the relevant CCTV footage was finally disclosed.
Although there was no audio, it was clear from the body language of Mr. Thomas that he was neither aggressive or intimidating in his encounter with the officer nor, even more significantly, did the officer show any signs of alarm or distress.
So at Crown Court on the 8 October 2010, two years after charges were brought, the prosecution case collapsed and no evidence was offered.
Claim against the police for malicious prosecution
Mr. Thomas contacted me in May 2011 following an internet search looking for a specialist lawyer to pursue a civil claim against the police.
As a solicitor who specialises in claims against the police I obtained the necessary case files from his criminal solicitors and submitted a claim for malicious prosecution and assault on his behalf.
I represented him in his claim against the police on a conditional fee (‘no win no fee’) agreement basis.
Legal basis of the claim against the police
On Mr. Thomas’s behalf I sought compensation for the humiliation, stress and anxiety caused by the criminal prosecution.
Among other things, in the formal claim against the police I demanded:
- basic damages, to compensate for loss and injury;
- aggravated damages, for injuries to feelings caused by the humiliating and distressing actions of the police; and
- exemplary damages, to punish the police for their unconstitutional, arbitrary or oppressive behaviour.
Legal proceedings in the claim against the police
In response, liability was denied and I was obliged to issue Court proceedings against Leicestershire Police.
The police filed a formal defence to the claim, so I prepared Mr. Thomas’s case for trial.
During the course of the pre-trial disclosure process, where relevant documents are exchanged between the parties in a ‘cards on the table’ approach, I received the police officer’s notebook in which he had written his account of the incident in 2008.
The officer’s notebook recorded how, when the policeman first spoke to Mr. Thomas in Morrisons, he gave his address as ’15 Glen’ and walked off.
Subsequently, when he was detained in a car park near the police station, the notebook account recorded that Mr. Thomas clarified his address as ’15 Glen Garry Way’.
When I asked Mr. Thomas about this he insisted that he had told the policeman his correct address, ’15 Connemara Road’.
This direct conflict of evidence was of interest. Mr Thomas had no reason to lie.
I reviewed the CCTV footage from the supermarket. I noted that the officer was writing something down when speaking to Mr. Thomas.
The police officer’s notebook which had been disclosed was redacted in key sections with black marker pen. In particular, one section was blacked out.
I asked the police for the un-redacted notebook and, if different, the notes he wrote while speaking to Mr. Thomas. They refused on data protection grounds.
Given the significance of the notebook I made an application to the Court for specific disclosure of it with the redacted sections to be shown.
The police contested this, but I successfully argued for it as it went to the heart of Mr. Thomas’s and the police officer’s credibility.
And, if unchallenged, the police could argue that the address Mr. Thomas provided was incorrect, so justifying the use of proportionate force in the arrest.
The court agreed and a more complete notebook was provided.
The first entry showed Mr. Thomas’s name and address as ’15 Conne’.
Mr. Thomas was therefore shown to be telling the truth when he said he had confirmed his correct address (and not a fake address, ’15 Glen Garry Way’) to the officer at the outset, something that would be of crucial importance at any trial when assessing the credibility of Mr Thomas and the officer.
Outcome of the claim against the police
Although the stress was taking its toll on him personally, Mr. Thomas was determined to continue with his claim against the police and fight for justice.
Shortly before trial the police made offers to settle.
Following negotiations, Mr. Thomas’s claim concluded for 15 times more than their original offer, plus full legal costs.
Mr Thomas was entitled to his damages not because the prosecution against him failed, and not even because there was no reasonable basis for it being brought but because the prosecution was motivated by malice on the part of the police officer i.e. it was a deliberate attempt to misuse the power of the law to cause harm to Mr Thomas, a prosecution for a crime which the officer knew Mr Thomas had not committed.
This was not a ‘mistaken prosecution’ but a malicious prosecution one of the most heinous abuses of police power, which fortunately is relatively rare in our society, but which must ever be guarded against, as it is one of the hallmarks of automatic, ill-bred and undemocratic regimes around the world.
Here the officer in question, who we might describe as an illiterate bully in uniform, sought to criminalise Mr Thomas simply for expressing an opinion he disagreed with – or indeed, one he found very uncomfortable, because he knew it to be true.