When people sue the police are they only after money? Here Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, looks at their motivations, how the system forces some to claim compensation, and the impact of the so-called “compensation culture”.
Let’s get one thing straight. The “compensation culture” is bogus. It’s a vampire myth that refuses to die even though government ministers, senior judges, and others have found no evidence of it. And yet, the myth persists, promoted by insurers, attention-hogging politicians, and senior police officers including Phil Gormley, Chief Constable of Norfolk Police (as he was then).
Those who promote the compensation culture story have something to gain, be it money, political power, or some other benefit. In the case of the police, shaming innocent victims to stop them claiming compensation means more money for police budgets. And as I explain here, blaming the compensation culture helps the police avoid scrutiny as it deflects attention from their own management failings and misconduct.
Why People Sue the Police
But even if the compensation culture existed, money is rarely the main reason people sue the police. This is because civil claims are about more than compensation. They are also about justice, accountability, and vindication:
- For society to have confidence in the Rule of Law and the police’s role in it we need to see justice done when they act improperly. Innocent victims of police misconduct help by bringing civil claims to hold the police accountable for their actions. We all benefit as a result.
- Victims also deserve public acknowledgement of the wrongs they suffered. This can have a healing effect, helping them rebuild their lives after (often) appalling treatment by the police.
- Righting these wrongs often includes correcting personal data such as records of arrest, DNA samples, and fingerprints. (For example, read how we helped Nigel Lang clear his name after his wrongful arrest on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children.)
- Most of my clients tell me that these things matter more than compensation, but recognise that compensation is an essential part of civil claims against the police. This is especially so in cases where the police stubbornly refuse to apologise. Compensation is the next best thing as victims know it will lead to questions being asked within the responsible Force. Sometimes this leads to changes in police policy. My clients are often very interested in this, as they don’t want anyone else to suffer like they did.
Fight for Justice
Civil claims against the police also fill a gap in our legal system. They help victims of police misconduct seek justice where the criminal justice system and police’s own internal disciplinary processes fail.
I represent a teenage girl who alleges that she was sexually assaulted by a (then) serving police officer. My client immediately lodged a complaint against the police. With her help, the police prepared a case for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to bring criminal proceedings against the officer.
The burden of proof in criminal cases is beyond reasonable doubt. The CPS felt that the case was strong enough to seek a conviction. My client gave evidence in court at a jury trial despite her genuine upset about being in the same room as her alleged attacker.
After hearing all the evidence, the jury could not agree that the CPS had met the high burden of proof. It was “hung” and the judge declared a mistrial.
The CPS insisted on a re-trial. My client gave evidence again, repeating her earlier harrowing experience. This time the jury acquitted the police officer, and he left court a free man.
My client was deeply upset. She took the verdict as meaning that the jury believed the police officer and thought that she was a liar.
Determined to fight for justice, my client pressed the police to investigate her complaint thoroughly.
The police officer’s Professional Standards Department (PSD) investigated. Among other things, my client’s allegations raised a breach of the Police Code of Ethics which could result in misconduct proceedings. The Code states that police officers and staff must
not establish or pursue an improper sexual or emotional relationship with a person with whom you come into contact in the course of your work who may be vulnerable to an abuse of trust or power.
On her version of events, the PSD should have referred the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission as it involved “serious corruption” and a “serious sexual offence”. But, for reasons unclear, the PSD’s investigating officers chose to deal with my client’s complaint “in house”. (This is not unusual. Read more about how the police wrongly handle police sexual exploitation complaints here.)
The burden of proof in police misconduct matters is the civil standard of “the preponderance of evidence”. This is lower than the criminal “beyond reasonable doubt” standard which the officer faced in his 2 jury trials. For a finding of misconduct, the PSD need show only that is was more probable than not that the misconduct occurred as alleged.
My client was confident that this would happen and that the officer would be severely sanctioned, and probably dismissed, for gross misconduct. After all, the CPS felt confident enough in the case to fight it to trial twice. Surely the police officer’s misconduct hearing would find that the case met the lower civil standard?
Sadly, we will never know. The police officer resigned following his acquittal in the criminal trial. Misconduct proceedings, where the most serious penalty is dismissal, were ended.
This means that the police officer involved has no stain on his record. He is free to seek employment elsewhere, including occupations which may bring him into contact with vulnerable young people again.
Worryingly, he is not alone. In 2016 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the police’s overseer, reported that:
Since December 2013, police forces have been providing the college [of policing] with details of officers who have been dismissed from the service, or who resigned or retired while subject to a gross misconduct investigation in which it had already been determined that there was a case to answer.
Misconduct figures from the register relating to leavers between 1 December 2013 and 30 November 2014 were published in March 2016.39 Sixty-seven (8 percent) of the 833 cases on the register during this time were recorded as relating to police officers leaving the service after having had a relationship with a vulnerable person. Thirty-three of these 67 leavers were dismissed, 30 resigned and 4 retired.
Civil Compensation Claim
After all her other options had been exhausted, my client researched solicitors who bring actions against the police. We met and I explained that she could still pursue a civil compensation claim for police abuse of authority for sexual gain. This is despite the police officer’s acquittal in criminal court and his later resignation. On the evidence I have seen, she has a good claim for damages. This is partly because, like in the police officer’s misconduct proceedings, her compensation claim will be considered on the (lower) civil standard of proof.
The system has failed my client so far. In bringing this compensation claim she is seeking justice, vindication, and accountability. She also wants to make sure that the police take her allegations seriously, and put procedures in place to stop someone else suffering what she has been through. Her motives could not be further away from those raised by promoters of the bogus “compensation culture”.
Contact Kevin Donoghue for help to sue the police here.