Client: Mr Elliott from Grimsby, Lincolnshire (details used with Mr Elliott’s kind permission)
Claim: Civil Action Against the Police for Police Assault/ Battery, False Imprisonment, Malicious Prosecution, Misfeasance in Public Office, Conversion, Loss of Earnings and other quantifiable losses
Claimant’s Solicitor: Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor Director at Donoghue Solicitors
Defendant: Chief Constable of Humberside Police
Result: Compensation of £37,500 plus legal costs.
The following description is based on Mr Elliott’s version of events. Humberside Police deny it.
Mr Elliott, a 46 year-old (at the time) married father of two, had been out to a local Wetherspoons pub with friends to celebrate a 50th birthday party. He had a pint of lager and one shandy, and was not drunk or impaired in any way.
His friend John (name changed) drove Mr Elliott, John’s partner Jane (name changed), and another friend Carl (name changed) home. John’s first drop-off was at Carl’s house. He pulled up at Carl’s and got out of the car. A six-foot man wearing a hoody appeared and led John to a Vauxhall Astra, which was now parked behind John’s car.
Mr Elliott and Jane went to the Astra to find out what was happening. John was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side. Mr Elliott approached that side of the car and saw another man (later identified as Police Constable Hughes (name changed)). He asked why John was being held but got no response.
Jane was upset, and shouted “You can’t do that, let him go. Now!”. Mr Elliott did not know who the men were, or why his friend was being held.
Mr Elliott reached to the rear passenger side door to free his friend. PC Hughes told him to move his hand away. At that point Jane shouted “They are coppers”. Mr Elliott backed away from the unmarked police car, but before he could get away completely PC Hughes forcefully pushed his door open. It hit Mr Elliott hard on his left shoulder and arm, causing him to spin around. The door bounced back off Mr Elliott and back towards the police officer. PC Hughes kicked it back towards Mr Elliott, injuring him a second time, this time on his right hand.
He winced with pain and was shocked at what had just happened. PC Hughes accused Mr Elliott of assaulting him. Mr Elliott denied this. PC Hughes leapt out of the car and pushed Mr Elliott down the street. He was strong and used both hands. In the course of three pushes, two to the chest and one to the face/ neck, PC Hughes moved Mr Elliott about 46 feet away from the unmarked police car, injuring him in the process.
To Mr Elliott, PC Hughes seemed out of control and aggressive.
Mr Elliott complained about the police assault. PC Hughes simply said, “forget about that”.
Mr Elliott was worried about the police’s misconduct and the welfare of his friends. He went back to the Astra. The other police officer, PC Jones (name changed) told his colleague PC Hughes to sit in the car with John. Mr Elliott asked if PC Jones saw PC Hughes’ assault. PC Jones said that he did not, but that he did not see Mr Elliott push the door at his colleague. Realising that this might be significant, Mr Elliott pulled out his mobile phone and began recording the incident. He repeated the question, but this time PC Jones denied saying that he did not see Mr Elliott push the door.
He put his phone away and went back to the police car to comfort Jane and see if he could help John. Jane was upset, so Mr Elliott convinced her to go home while he stayed with John and Carl. Five minutes later a marked police car and van arrived. A traffic officer questioned John and prepared to take a breath sample. Mr Elliott was worried that this was premature and might result in a false reading. He thought that the officer should wait at least 20 minutes before taking a sample. He asked the traffic officer if his understanding was correct, and said to his friend “You know the score, John.”
Unlawful Arrest and Police Assault
Hearing Mr Elliott’s comments, PC Hughes and other officers pounced on him. They arrested Mr Elliott for assaulting a police officer and obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty. The police handcuffed Mr Elliott to the rear and took him to Grimsby Police Station. At the station he listened as PC Hughes gave a false account to the Custody Officer to justify arrest. PC Jones and PC Hughes then escorted him into a room and performed an intimate strip search, including a body cavity inspection. They found nothing and put him in a police cell.
Mr Elliott suffers with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. His symptoms flared up and he asked for medication. The police ignored his requests but offered some food, which he could not eat because of his condition. His IBS symptoms and anxiety got worse through the night. He vomited repeatedly. Eventually the police called for ambulance to take him to hospital. Mr Elliott felt humiliated by the police because he was handcuffed while escorted through the hospital in full view of everyone there. The handcuffs also meant he was unable to clean himself after defecating. A doctor at the hospital confirmed he had suffered a panic attack and passed out.
The police took Mr Elliott back to the station, where they detained him overnight. That morning, during a formal interview, the interviewing officer told Mr Elliott that PC Hughes had been to hospital and was having photographs taken, so there was no doubt about the assault case against him. Mr Elliott maintained his innocence, and protested that, in fact, PC Hughes had assaulted him.
At about 1:45pm Mr Elliott was released on bail in respect of both charges of assaulting a police officer, and obstructing an officer in the execution of his duty. His detention lasted over 14 hours.
The police kept his mobile phone for evidence. This was a problem because Mr Elliott is a successful security alarm installer. The phone company would not transfer his phone number to another phone so over the following weeks he had to tell more than 3,000 clients that his number had changed. He also had to go to 92 premises to re-program their security systems to call his new phone number in the event of an alarm.
Mr Elliott returned to Grimsby Police Station to answer bail as required, and was formally charged with both offences.
He insisted he was not guilty and fought the charges. His case went to trial nearly a year later after four court appearances. PC Hughes and PC Jones gave evidence under oath. The charge of obstruction did not proceed but, after hearing PC Hughes’ version of events, the District Judge convicted Mr Elliott of assaulting a police officer. The Court ordered Mr Elliott to pay a fine of £250, £15 Victim Surcharge, £350 towards the costs of the prosecution, and £100 compensation to PC Hughes.
Mr Elliott immediately appealed the conviction. The case had taken a heavy toll on his personal and professional life, and his work had suffered. He was low on funds so had no alternative but to represent himself in the appeal hearing. This meant that Mr Elliott had to cross-examine PC Hughes, PC Jones, and the officer who interviewed him.
At the hearing the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) lawyer briefly showed Mr Elliott a copy of PC Hughes’ disciplinary record, which Mr Elliott had repeatedly asked for before the hearing. It showed that PC Hughes had assaulted another person about six weeks before he assaulted Mr Elliott. PC Hughes had also been placed on a final warning after being disciplined for “theft by false accounting”.
The CPS lawyer accepted that this disciplinary record was damaging to the Crown’s case and told the Court that he was no longer offering any evidence. The case collapsed and Mr Elliott was found “not guilty” of assaulting a police officer.
Kevin Donoghue specialises in civil actions against the police and took instructions from Mr Elliott. Kevin knew this was not a “run of the mill” case as it involved serious allegations of:
- False imprisonment
- Police assault/ battery
- Malicious prosecution
- Misfeasance in public office
- Conversion (a tort for losses caused as a result of the retention and damage to Mr Elliott’s mobile phone)
- Complex quantifiable losses, including a significant loss of earnings claim.
(Click here to read more about the law in civil actions against the police to find out how Kevin identified these “heads of claim”.)
He noted that the criminal case had taken years from start to finish, due to the time between the incident, prosecution, conviction, and appeal. This meant that, if he took the case, Kevin would be under pressure due to the time limits which apply in actions against the police.
Kevin was also aware that the case could come down to witness evidence. On one side was the State, in the form of the well-respected police; on the other, a man who had, at one point, been convicted of the serious criminal offence of assaulting a police officer.
Despite these issues, Kevin was impressed by Mr Elliott. He:
- was articulate, intelligent, and clear in his instructions
- had successfully fought the conviction
- was willing to help with disbursement funding.
Kevin agreed to take Mr Elliott’s case on a “no win no fee” basis and began investigations.
Pursuing a Civil Action Against Humberside Police
Mr Elliott forwarded his documents and Kevin sent a letter of claim. Kevin also issued protective proceedings at court to preserve his client’s claim while waiting for a response from Humberside Police. In a long and detailed letter the police denied liability, saying that:
- The traffic stop was lawful due to the erratic nature of John’s driving.
- Mr Elliott had tried to open the police car door, giving the officers reasonable suspicion that he was committing the offence of obstruction.
- Mr Elliott kicked the car door at PC Hughes, trapping his hand in the door and assaulting the officer.
- PC Hughes only pushed Mr Elliott once to move him away from the vehicle.
- PC Jones heard Mr Elliott trying to advise John how to fool the breathalyzer machine, so trying to deliberately interfere with the test.
- Mr Elliott gave inconsistent evidence during interview. By contrast, PC Hughes provided consistent evidence and there had been no adverse judicial finding in respect of the officer’s evidence.
- The charge of obstruction only failed to proceed at the Magistrates’ Court because of a paperwork error.
- In support of their denial Humberside Police relied on the case of Basher v DPP (1993). They said this case stated that, if the arresting officer had reasonable grounds for believing that an offence had been committed and followed the proper procedures, the Defendant’s subsequent acquittal by a court hearing did not make the arrest unlawful. They believed his arrest was lawful.
- The police also noted that Mr Elliott’s police complaint was not upheld and that he did not appeal this decision.
The Force denied every allegation and liability completely and the tone of the letter left Kevin in no doubt: Humberside Police were prepared to fight.
Risk and Reward
Kevin discussed matters with his client. He explained that:
- If Mr Elliott wanted justice, he should be prepared to take his case to trial, potentially facing his accusers in court again. As well as this stress and the burden (which falls on the claimant) of proving his case, Mr Elliott had to consider that judges and juries often give police officers the benefit of the doubt. Police officers attend court in uniform, strengthening their reputation as respectable, trusted members of society who do a difficult job. Because both versions of events were so different, for a jury to find in Mr Elliott’s favour it would effectively have to find that the police lied. Was his client confident that would happen?
- The incident and aftermath caused Mr Elliott to suffer a severe psychological reaction. Continuing the fight might prolong his suffering.
- Mr Elliott had to consider the financial risk. The protection personal injury litigants get from Qualified One Way Costs Shifting rules might not apply to his “mixed” claim. (Read why here.) Because actions against the police are so complex, legal costs on both sides can be in the tens of thousands. Could his client afford to lose?
After considering all this, Mr Elliott confirmed that was willing to take the personal and financial risk.
But he wasn’t the only one.
Donoghue Solicitors was acting under a conditional fee (no win no fee) agreement. This method of funding was good for Mr Elliott as he did not have to pay legal fees up front and Donoghue Solicitors would only get paid if he won. This meant that if Mr Elliott lost his claim he would not be out-of-pocket for his solicitor’s fees. But if that happened Kevin’s firm would not get paid for years of work.
Donoghue Solicitors was putting its money where Mr Elliott’s mouth was.
Also, Mr Donoghue has an excellent reputation as a solicitor, particularly in the niche legal field of civil actions against the police. And the firm, Donoghue Solicitors, is highly regarded in this area of law, winning the Liverpool Law Society Niche Law Firm Award in 2015. Bringing a poor case before the court would not be in Mr Elliott’s best interests and could potentially damage both Kevin Donoghue’s personal reputation and that of the firm. Kevin knew that this was a “he said, she said” case, in which live witness evidence before a jury would be crucial. Would his client and witnesses convince a jury to find in Mr Elliott’s favour?
After discussing these genuine risks, both Mr Donoghue and Mr Elliott were determined to proceed.
Preparing for Trial
Mr Donoghue served formal “Particulars of Claim” with the proceedings. He claimed compensation for his client for the reasons above, and sought aggravated damages as well as basic damages, to reflect the alleged deliberate police misconduct. (Read why aggravated damages were appropriate here.)
Humberside Police maintained its denial of liability in its Defence and put Mr Elliott to “strict proof”, meaning that he had to prove each and every aspect of his claim for damages.
To do this Kevin Donoghue arranged for his client to be medically examined by both an Accident and Emergency Consultant and a Consultant Psychiatrist. Both confirmed that Mr Elliott’s physical and mental injuries were caused by the incident. The A&E consultant said he suffered:
- various contusions to his right hand, lower leg, and chest
- a cut on his right hand left a small scar.
- a chipped tooth.
The psychiatrist diagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Mr Donoghue worked with his client to prove his claim for loss of earnings. This was complicated due to the nature of his work and the difficulties in proving potential lost work. He also obtained evidence to prove the claim for conversion of Mr Elliott’s mobile phone.
Meanwhile, Kevin prepared the case for trial by liaising with the court and Humberside Police’s solicitor. The parties agreed timetables for progress, disclosure, witness evidence, trial etc. and worked towards a full jury trial.
Settlement Negotiations with Humberside Police
Despite Humberside Police’s hardline stance the force made “Part 36” offers to settle the claim. These tactical “without prejudice” offers can be made by either party and put pressure on the other side to consider settling the claim. If Mr Elliott failed to beat a Part 36 offer after trial the Court could make an adverse costs order against him. But Humberside Police had risks too. Losing at trial in court in front of the public and media could cost the Force dearly in both money and reputation.
The police’s first Part 36 offer, made after the Force filed its defence, was for £10,000. Kevin discussed it with his client. He advised that the offer was too low on the basis of the presented claim. Mr Elliott rejected it.
Humberside Police upped the offer to £17,500. Again, Mr Elliott rejected it and Kevin wrote a detailed letter explaining why, along with the Claimant’s own Part 36 offer. The police upped their Part 36 offer for a third time to £20,000. Kevin advised his client to reject it. He did.
Kevin discussed matters with the Police’s solicitor. After further negotiations the parties agreed to settle Mr Elliott’s claim for £37,500, almost four times more than the original offer, plus legal costs.
Mr Elliott was thrilled that he did not have to go to trial, and that Humberside Police had been made to pay for the pain and suffering its officers had caused.
At last, justice had been done.
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