By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor Director of Donoghue Solicitors
I recently wrote about why people bring claims against the police. Compensation is less important for many victims of police misconduct, especially when compared to:
- restoring their reputations
- correcting inaccurate police records/ destruction of DNA etc. which could impact on future job prospects/ parental access rights etc.
- holding the police accountable for their actions
- seeing that lessons are learned so that others don’t have to suffer similarly.
Effects When People Bring Claims Against the Police
So, bringing claims against the police helps claimants in many ways. But there’s more to it than that. It is not enough that victims seek and recover remedies and compensation for police misconduct, and that the police take steps to prevent a recurrence. For society to have confidence in the Rule of Law we must see that justice is done. By publicly bringing claims against the police, claimants:
- fulfil a valuable civic duty by showing society that our constitutional rights can, and should, be upheld
- remind police who abuse their positions of power that no one is above the law, especially those tasked with upholding it
- contribute to changes to existing police policies, and to the development of new practices, which can help reduce police misconduct in future
- help develop new law, which further protects our fundamental human rights.
In some cases, this is done by victims of police misconduct publicising their cases after they finish. For example:
1. Nigel Lang was wrongfully arrested on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children. He lost his job working with vulnerable young people, and suffered serious psychological effects.
With my help Nigel Lang received £60,000 compensation and made sure the police corrected his record. Hertfordshire Police, the force which arranged for Nigel Lang’s arrest after incorrectly providing his IP address, apologised and confirmed it changed its procedures to prevent a repeat of his ordeal. All this has helped him start to rebuild his life.
But even though it was hard, Nigel recognised the importance of telling the public about what had happened for the reasons above. I arranged for him to speak with journalists from Buzzfeed News. Later he appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme before a nationwide television audience. By doing so he raised public awareness of the devastating effects of what the police pithily described as an “administrative error”.
2. Paul Smith was late for work and frustrated at the delay in being issued a parking ticket. When things escalated he was wrongfully arrested, assaulted, “pepper” sprayed, and put in a spit hood in full view of the public in his home town of Hastings. Paul’s painful and humiliating experience was made worse because he felt that his family, friends, and neighbours thought he was somehow responsible. The £25,000 compensation he received helped prove his innocence to them and restore his reputation.
Spit Hood Dangers
Like Nigel Lang, Paul wanted the public to know what happened and to understand the horrendous experience of being spit-hooded. He kindly agreed to me using his details when discussing his case in radio interviews and online. I referred to Paul’s case to explain what happens when the police spray victims with PAVA “pepper spray” before applying spit hoods. Among other things:
- the spray causes a reflexive clearing of the airways which can (wrongly) be interpreted as spitting at an officer, and
- hooding people who have been sprayed increases the risk of suffocation, causing serious injury or, in the worst cases, death.
Bringing attention to these risks ought to raise public and police awareness about these potentially deadly tools.
Public Vindication in Civil Courts
In other cases, bringing claims against the police also extends to publicising misconduct in courtrooms where the public, journalists, and others can see justice being done. For example:
1. I represented James Parry, a prominent solicitor based in Merseyside. He was wrongfully arrested after agreeing to attend a local police station for a voluntary interview with a police officer investigating an alleged theft. The arrest smeared Mr Parry’s professional reputation as it called into question his honesty. It was worse because he is a criminal solicitor who often represents clients at Merseyside’s police stations.
The police refused to accept wrongdoing so we took James’s case to trial in Liverpool County Court, where he won £9,000 compensation for his false imprisonment claim. Pubic vindication by a judge in court was of vital importance to my client as a solicitor who appears in Liverpool’s courts daily. His story was also reported in the Liverpool Echo and the Law Society Gazette, the trade magazine for the legal profession, helping further public knowledge and (hopefully) change the police’s procedures with respect to voluntary interviews.
Merseyside Police issued a statement in response to the press reports saying:
‘The force carefully considered this civil action and it was thoroughly examined by our legal department who also sought external legal advice. As a result, it was decided that it was appropriate to defend the claim and test the facts in court.’
This is an apparent misunderstanding of the law because it wrongly suggests that the burden of proof is on the claimant in false imprisonment claims. I wrote a blog post to clear up any confusion on the part of the police. I hope Merseyside Police read it and apply the well-established principles to save others from Mr Parry’s experience.
2. Another of my clients recently won her case at Cardiff County Court after being wrongfully convicted of assaulting a police officer. My client, who worked part-time as an SIA-accredited steward, was driving home when the police pulled her over. Things got out of hand and the officers assaulted and arrested her. To her horror, the officers falsely claimed that my client had assaulted one of them in the execution of his duty. The police prosecuted, and convicted, her at the Magistrates’ Court on the basis of the officers’ false evidence. She appealed to the Crown Court, where the court found no case to answer and quashed her conviction.
Civil Court Judgment
But that did not go far enough to restore her reputation, clear her record, and hold the police to account for their appalling misconduct. I took her case to trial where the Judge made a public finding against the police. He said,
“In my judgment the arrest and prosecution of the Claimant was the result of a face-saving exercise by the police officers involved, who had allowed a trivial event to become an incident in which an innocent member of the public had been assaulted and injured by them”.
This finding was essential to my client personally and in her work as she could now correct her police record. The court also awarded my client more than £70,000 compensation, a large amount which reflected the serious nature of the police misconduct. The judgment was also important for the public, as it showed that the police can be held to account.
Understandably, some people can be in two minds about whether to bring claims against the police. Proceedings can be stressful, hard-fought, and take a long time. Challenging the misconduct of “our brave boys in blue” may be unpalatable, especially for people who have never been in trouble with the police before. But we should all recognise the bravery of victims of police abuse, because, as Lord Chief Justice Hewart said in R v Sussex Justices ex p McCarthy (1924):
“[It] is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who helps people bring civil actions against the police.