The police must learn that they are not above the law

Six years after an altercation in south London, the courts ruled that the police broke the law. This happens too often.

Sasha Barton
28 August 2014

One afternoon in the summer of 2008, officers from the London Metropolitan Police were called to a street in Vauxhall in south London and one of them acted in a way which was simply not lawful, claiming that he was allowed to because he was a police officer.

Last month, after six years the Court of Appeal has finally confirmed that the officer had no power to act as he did, putting the matter beyond doubt.

On 12th July 2008, police officers were called to attend an altercation between Mr Walker and his then partner. By the time the police arrived, Mr Walker was standing in a porch doorway area where PC Adams approached to ask him questions. Mr Walker made clear repeatedly that he did not want to talk to the officer but was then backed by the officer into the doorway, deliberately preventing him from escaping.

A tussle ensued, during which the officer tried to detain Mr Walker and held him face down so that he could not breathe. Mr Walker bit the officer upon which he was released and gasped for air. Other officers joined in his detention and he was arrested for a public order offence. He was later acquitted of all charges, the Magistrates’ court finding that the officer had not been acting in the execution of his duty since he had unlawfully detained him in the doorway and Mr Walker’s response was not disproportionate.

Mr Walker, who had suffered multiple injuries as well as being locked up for hours unlawfully and having to go through a stressful prosecution (he had no previous convictions) then sued the police for damages for false imprisonment, assault and malicious prosecution.

The police denied liability, refused to settle the claim for a reasonable sum and fought the case to trial. The case went before HHJ Freeland QC in the Central London County Court in July 2013. In Alexander Walker v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Mr Walker’s claim was that he had been unlawfully blocked into a doorway for questioning by PC Adams, despite not being under arrest and the officer admitting he had no intention of arresting him. He claimed that as a result of this early unlawful act, the officer’s conduct which followed was unlawful. In the original trial, His Honour Judge Freeland QC said that there had been no false imprisonment, the detention having been merely ‘transient’ and ‘fleeting’ and did not uphold any of Mr Walker’s other claims.

Mr Walker appealed to the Court of Appeal, arguing that the trial judge had got the law wrong on false imprisonment, and made unfair and unlawful findings about his other claims. The Court of Appeal gave its judgment on 1st July 2014. They overturned the original judgment by finding that Mr Walker had been falsely imprisoned. However, they did not weigh up the other evidence considered by the trial judge, and did not make findings about whether his other conclusions had been unlawful or not.

While it is disappointing that the Court of Appeal declined to revisit other aspects of the original judgment resulting in a paltry sum of damages, the central part of the judgment is a victory for upholding civil liberties.

I represented Mr Walker and it was clear from the outset that he was falsely detained and this wrong had to be corrected. Why it took six years to get to this position I find puzzling, the rules around policing are clear and had clearly been over stepped in this case.

Had the Court upheld the original judgment regarding false imprisonment this would have signalled a marked increase in policing powers. The police already have a huge raft of powers open to them but if they choose not to use them, they have no more rights than the ordinary citizen to curtail someone’s liberty, or to order them what to do.  They cannot detain people or force them to answer questions; and if they do so, they are committing an act of false imprisonment, as in this case.

Despite media reports to the contrary, the Met are not facing a pay-out of “…the lion’s share of the legal costs, likely to run into six figures” following this case. There was no costs order made for the original county court trial, meaning each party must bear their own costs (and Mr Walker’s costs greatly exceeded those of the police, as Claimant costs are generally significantly more than those of the Defendant due to the nature and extent of the work involved, and certainly were in this case). The Met is only liable to pay 25% for the Court of Appeal costs, despite losing on by far the most significant point. We can’t say exactly what the figure will be but it certainly won’t be into six figures. Had the police conceded this issue at the outset, as they should clearly have done, their costs would have been minimal.

All too often in my work I see examples of the police flouting the rules that are there to protect us all. This decision should send a strong message to the police that they cannot make the rules up as they go along. They are not above the law.

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