I just need to shout it from the rooftops … ” Donaghue Solicitors – SIMPLY THE BEST ! It took me 6 months to find you after contacting many solicitors who refused to take the case.Having been wrongly accused of a heinous crime, Daniel Fitzsimmons you listened and cared, applied your knowledge and expertise in the subject area and was able to right the wrong. The police have now been held responsible and accountable for their actions. I am so very grateful, thankyou.
Clients: Lisa McCullough and James Williams from Walsall, West Midlands
Claim: Civil actions against the police for:
- data protection claims (brought under the Data Protection Act 1998)
- false imprisonment
- assault/ battery
Defendant: Chief Constable of West Midlands Police
Result: Over £40,000 compensation paid to Lisa and James plus their legal costs.
Both clients have kindly allowed us to use their details. This account is based on their version of events, some of which is disputed.
CAUTION: This case report includes references to sexual abuse.
About the Claimants
Lisa McCullough and her son James lived in Walsall. Both had full-time jobs. In police language, they were of “previous good character”. They had no previous convictions. Lisa worked for a local school as a Pastoral Manager. Her job involved sensitive issues and vulnerable children. It required that she have a full, clean, and up-to-date Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate.
Mrs McCullough previously worked for Walsall Social Services as a Family Support Caseworker. She helped parents improve their skills and care for their children.
James’ reputation and “previous good character” were vital to his personal and professional life too. He was:
- a heating engineer based at a local school. This meant he also needed, and had, a clean DBS record.
- involved in family court contact proceedings to seek access to his 3-year-old daughter.
Background to Police Visit
On 4 July 2017, at approximately 7:15a.m., Lisa left home for work.
Fifteen minutes later she got a call from James. He was agitated and told her that the police were at the house. They wanted to speak to her.
The call shocked and confused Lisa. She had no idea why the police were there and immediately returned home.
Lisa found two West Midlands Police officers waiting for her in the living room. The officers arrested Lisa and James on suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor.
Both Lisa and James were distraught and sickened when they heard this. James told the police they were mistaken. Lisa pleaded innocence. The police officers ignored them.
The police escorted the mother and her son from their home in full view of the neighbours. The officers drove them to a police station. Lisa and James were then “booked in”.
The police recorded the shocking grounds for arrest in Custody Records.
Officers then took the mother and son’s DNA, fingerprints, and photographs. They said they would have to tell Lisa’s employers about the case because of the sensitive nature of her work. This crushed her. She knew the allegations:
- were false, and nothing to do with her
- would ruin her excellent, long-standing reputation within the social services field
- could lead to her losing her DBS licence and job.
The police separated Lisa and James and locked them in cells. West Midlands Police officers set up interviews with a criminal solicitor present.
A criminal lawyer for Lisa and James met with the arresting officer to find out what had happened. The police told her that the mother and son were part of a historic sexual abuse case with many arrests.
The criminal solicitor then took instructions from her clients. She told Lisa that the officers had an apologetic tone. “Off the record” the police said that they knew Lisa and James were not involved. But they arrested the pair to eliminate them from enquiries.
Lisa broke down in tears when she heard this. She could not understand why the police would arrest her if they knew she had not done anything wrong.
The police interviewed Lisa and James separately about 3 ½ hours after arrest. The officers put horrible, graphic, disgusting questions to them about sexual abuse.
Both Lisa and James
- denied the allegations in full.
- answered all the police’s questions.
They had nothing to hide.
After the interview the police told James that they were not going to take any further action against him.
But the police released Lisa on bail to report back to the police station next month. This made no sense and upset her even more. Why would the police do this if they only arrested Lisa to clear her from their enquiries?
West Midlands Police held Lisa and James for about six hours.
But that wasn’t an end to the matter. A police officer drove them home. While driving, he told Lisa that the police would not take any further action against her either. This was confusing and contradicted what the police told her at the station.
He also reassured his passengers that their arrests would not show up on Police National Computer (PNC) records. No one would know the police had arrested them.
This news was vital for their professional and personal lives.
But the promise the officer made was also contradictory. The police had earlier told Lisa that they might tell her employer about the case. Lisa and James felt that they had no alternative but to tell their employers what had happened. They relied on the police’s reassurances that matters would not go any further.
Fortunately, both employers were sympathetic and allowed them to keep their jobs.
Deleting PNC Records
A day after the incident the police told Lisa that they would send her papers to clear her PNC record.
But the papers never came.
Later, James and Lisa went to court for a contact hearing about his daughter (her grand-daughter). There, the court reviewed a CAFCASS report which described the sexual abuse allegations.
The court denied James contact with his 3-year-old daughter for several months. This devastated James and Lisa and made the whole ordeal worse.
Eventually, James got weekend contact. But social services made sure someone was present when James dropped his daughter off.
Lisa was angry and upset by the effects of the police’s actions on herself, her son, and grand-daughter. She called the police and challenged the officer who reassured them about their PNC records. He agreed to help “put this right” and met with her.
The police deleted their PNC records after Lisa and James submitted their applications.
Instructing Specialist Data Protection Solicitors
It is hard to overstate the effect of the arrests on Lisa and James. Both of them were traumatised and confused by what had happened. They wanted answers, an apology, and compensation.
Getting a solicitor’s help wasn’t straightforward though.
Lisa approached local lawyers. Most did not have the experience to take such a challenging case and rejected her outright. Others told Lisa that she would have to pay up front to investigate.
Mrs Williams searched the internet and found Donoghue Solicitors. Perhaps our expert data protection solicitors could help?
Lisa and James spoke with Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive. He confirmed that Donoghue Solicitors represents clients throughout England and Wales and took full details of the case.
When Mr Fitzsimmons heard Lisa and James tell their story, one thing jumped out right away:
Lisa said the police were apologetic in their pre-interview discussion with her criminal lawyer. If that was so, why the arrests?
Daniel suspected a potential breach of the Data Protection Act (1998).
Also, from his experience dealing with civil actions against the police, he knew that the police had to:
- justify his clients’ arrests and detention, and
- base their arrests on “reasonable suspicion”.
A court was likely to hold the police responsible for false imprisonment without these things. (Read more about Daniel’s reasoning here.)
Mr Fitzsimmons discussed the case with Kevin Donoghue, solicitor. (The two lawyers work closely together on data protection law cases.) Kevin agreed:
- that the case was worth investigating further, and
- to act on a “no win no fee” basis.
This meant that Lisa and James now had specialist data protection solicitors without paying “up-front”.
Letter of Claim Against West Midlands Police
Daniel got to work right away. He contacted his clients’ criminal solicitors to review their files. He also got the police’s custody records.
The lawyers reviewed this information and full details from their clients. Donoghue Solicitors then submitted compensation claims against West Midlands Police by using a formal “Letter of Claim”.
The Letter of Claim is a technical document which applies the Civil Procedure Rules. In it, the Claimants (Lisa and James):
- gave the police information to identify them and the officers involved
- said what happened
- told the police why they were entitled to compensation (and other remedies if appropriate)
- demanded documents to help them assess the strengths and weaknesses of the claim
- set time limits for a response on liability
- dealt with other matters in the Rules.
Legal Grounds for a Claim Against the Police
Among other things, the Claimants argued that they were entitled to compensation for:
1. False imprisonment
- detention was not based on a reasonable suspicion that Lisa and James had committed an offence for which the police could hold them
- the arrest was not necessary in law “to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question”
- the arresting officer did not exercise their discretion about whether to arrest
- the arresting officer did not follow the Police and Criminal Evidence Act Code of Practice G (2012) when deciding to arrest.
2. Assault/ battery
The Claimants alleged that any and all physical touching by the police was unlawful and amounted to assault/ battery.
3. Breach of the Data Protection Act 1998
Lisa and James also sought compensation for a breach of data protection law.
They were able to do this because the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police was a “data controller” under the Data Protection Act 1998.
He held personal and sensitive data relating to alleged sexual abuse. As a result, he had to fulfil the Third and Fourth Data Protection Principles set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the 1998 Data Protection Act.
The Claimants alleged that the Chief Constable breached data protection principles in two ways:
- the personal information held in relation to Lisa and James was not accurate and/ or kept up to date. It wrongly showed that they were wanted in relation to sexual abuse allegations; and/ or
- the personal data held in relation to Lisa and James was not relevant, for the same reason as in 1. above.
West Midlands Police’s Response to Letter of Claim
The police had a limited amount of time to say if they accepted liability. They also had to send the necessary documents under the Civil Procedure Rules.
But, as often happens, the allowed time passed without a response. So Donoghue Solicitors threatened to take the police to court.
Admission and Offer to Settle
This step concentrated the police’s minds. The police offered £4,500 to settle Lisa’s claim, and, much later, offered £6,500 to James.
The offers were interesting but did not deal with the requirements under the Rules. So Daniel and Kevin pressed further.
Shortly afterwards, the police’s lawyer emailed about James saying
I can confirm that my client (the Chief Constable) accepts primary liability. Causation of your client’s alleged psychological injury remains in dispute.
While helpful, Daniel and Kevin knew that this was not good enough because the police only admitted:
- liability on James’ case, and not Lisa’s
- “primary liability”. The force did not admit liability for each cause of action (false imprisonment, assault/ battery, breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, etc.)
And denying causation meant that the claims were effectively still in dispute. This is because Claimants must show that there is a “causal link” between the defendant’s acts or omissions and their loss to claim compensation.
Finally, the Claimants and their lawyers had not seen the police’s documents, a requirement of the Civil Procedure Rules. Without them, they could not assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides’ cases.
Despite the issues with liability and causation, the offers were welcome and suggested the police were willing to settle. But without expert medical evidence it would be impossible for Kevin and Daniel to say if they were fair.
So, Daniel arranged for a consultant psychiatrist to examine his clients and:
- give an opinion on the nature and extent of their psychological injuries
- consider if they were related to the police’s action.
This would help they lawyers value their clients’ claims and deal with the police’s comments on causation.
Both medical reports were supportive and showed the causal link required to bring personal injury compensation claims.
Lisa’s medical report
The psychiatrist noted in his report that Lisa suffered:
- panic attacks
- a heightened state of arousal
as a result of the police arrest and detention.
Loud bangs or noises started her. Lisa had flashbacks of her arrest and interview at the police station.
Mrs McCullough became withdrawn from family and friends. The psychiatrist described how:
She says that she lived in fear and could not trust anybody. She says that she was very wary of people and would not let anyone come close to her.
She struggled to motivate herself to go out of the house. Lisa suffered poor concentration and appetite. She felt “burnt out” even though Lisa was taking anti-depressants.
Understandably, the incident affected her work. Lisa became wary about speaking to children on her own and would keep her distance. But she still had to deal with the police at work. Lisa would panic when they wanted to see her, fearing another arrest.
In his prognosis, the psychiatrist said that:
The traumatic incident has been of a catastrophic nature for Ms McCullough, especially given the nature of the work that she does and the implications that the index incident has had on this.
He diagnosed that Lisa had suffered “moderately severe” Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Recurrent Depressive Disorder. These were serious, medically-recognised issues.
The expert recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy treatment to help Lisa come to terms with what happened. Daniel arranged for his client to get 16 sessions of private care to help her recovery. The psychiatrist also advised increasing her dose of anti-depressant medication.
James’ medical evidence
The consultant psychiatrist also examined James and prepared a report. He noted that Mr Williams:
found it difficult initially when he returned to work as he would often think about the incident. He says that when he was being interviewed by the Police he was treated as if he was “guilty” and he had found this quite degrading, something that he constantly thought about.
James became more vigilant:
He is always looking around to see if someone is watching him and he is always trying to look for witnesses around him so that he can call upon them should there be any enquiries about his behaviour.
He suffered flashbacks and anxiety, especially when he saw the police. He gained weight due to “comfort eating”, but “lost trust in people generally”.
Because of the arrest and detention, the medical expert said James developed an:
Adjustment Disorder, with predominant disturbance of other emotions, particularly worry, tension and anxiety
Court Proceedings Brought by a Data Protection Solicitor
The police did not deal with the outstanding matters after making their offers. So Kevin Donoghue drafted the court papers, relying on his knowledge as a specialist data protection solicitor. He then issued formal court proceedings.
West Midlands Police Response
The court proceedings resulted in increased offers of settlement.
Daniel and Kevin reviewed the offers with their clients. They advised Lisa and James to reject them. They agreed.
The lawyers wrote to West Midlands Police explaining why the increased offers were inadequate, referring to case law and statute. They calculated full damages for Lisa at £28,897.30, and £13,500 for James.
Full Liability Admission and Explanation for Wrongful Arrests
West Midlands Police filed a defence. In it, the force admitted liability for both Lisa’s and James’ claims for:
- false imprisonment
- assault/ battery
- breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.
This was what the Claimants had been fighting for, and compared favourably to the police’s earlier acceptance of primary liability only.
Why the Police Arrested James and Lisa
As well as compensation, Lisa and James wanted to know what went wrong and why. The lawyers used the document disclosure process in the Civil Procedure Rules to find out.
The police’s papers described how Lisa’s former job brought her into contact with a family who had vulnerable children. It was alleged that the children were abused by their parents and their parents’ friends.
One of the children told foster carers that Lisa and her son James had abused them. This information was passed on to Walsall Childrens’ Services, who told the police.
The police’s defence confirmed this, saying:
(1) It is admitted that the Claimants were wrongly identified as the suspects. The information which led to the arrest came from an external agency and the officers acted on it in good faith. It is admitted that that (sic) further checks ought to have been made before proceeding to arrest the Claimants. The arrests were made by officers who acted on the wrong information.
Result in this Data Protection Breach Claim
West Midlands Police accepted the counter-offers Daniel and Kevin made on behalf of their clients:
- Lisa’s £28,897.30 settlement was over six times more than the police’s first offer
- James’ £13,500.00 was more than double
- Both clients also got their full legal costs.
Lisa was delighted. She told Daniel:
I cannot thank you enough for the support you have given to me and I will be forever grateful.
Thanks to our data protection solicitors, Lisa and James made sure:
- the police admitted liability for their wrongdoing. The defence they filed is a public document. It proves Lisa and James were wrongfully arrested.
- the outcome satisfied their employers that the allegations were unfounded
- they got fully compensated for the data protection breach and the police’s subsequent acts.
In short: they got justice.