Policing the police; what can you do when the police act unlawfully?

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The BPLS Legal Observers work hard to document police conduct at marches. However, the police often misuse their powers in all sorts of contexts and we can’t always be there. Here are some tips on how to hold the police to account.

Whether you’re in a protest or not, you might experience or witness a police officer acting in an unlawful or unreasonable way. This could involve:

  • Wrongful Arrest
  • Assault
  • Trespass to land
  • Unlawful Imprisonment
  • Data protection breaches
  • Recovery of Property
  • Malicious Prosecution
  • Human Rights breaches

If you are a victim of police misconduct connected to a BLM protest, contact us here to discuss legal support or representation.

How do I make a complaint to the police?

If you have any issue with the police, the first step should be to lodge a complaint with the relevant police force.

If your encounter with the police is especially violent or you believe they have misused their powers in a very serious way, we would advise you contact a solicitor as soon as possible to advise on how to write the complaint. Unfortunately, a badly written complaint can be used against you in evidence, for example if you miss something out or say something wrong. They also may direct you towards a civil claim.

If your encounter was connected to a BLM protest, contact us here to see if we can put you in contact with our network of lawyers.

If the complaint is less serious, here is an outline of the complaint process.

How do I start the complaints procedure?
  1. The complaints procedure can be completed online through either the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) or the relevant police force.

  2. You can find the correct police force on this page. In London it will generally be the Metropolitan police, whose complaints procedure can be found here.

What details should I include in a complaint?

In your complaint you should generally include:

  • What problem are you complaining about?
  • What was the officer’s name or shoulder number (if you have them)
  • What power did the police say they were using (they should tell you what legislation they are acting under)?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • Did anyone see what happened?
  • What was said and done?
  • Did you get hurt or any of your things get damaged?
  • What effect has it had on your mental health?
  • What do you expect the outcome of complaint to be?
What response should I expect from a police complaint?

They should respond within 15 days. If they accept you complaint there are six main remedies to expect; they might:

  • apologise to you personally,
  • investigate the person you complained about,
  • possibly discipline the person you complained about (though this is rare),
  • rethink their policies and retrain their officers (though this is rare),
  • (if an officer has done something more serious) elevate your complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct,
  • (if an officer committed a crime) elevate your complaint to the Crown Prosecution Service.

If the police reject your complaint, they have to justify that what they did was lawful, and explain what powers they were acting under. If you have contacted a lawyer, you should ask them to review this.

What should I do if I am unhappy with the police response?
  1. If you are unhappy with your complaint you can appeal the decision with the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). You can also raise the issue with your MP, or contact certain activist groups.

  2. If you are still unhappy with this, or if your legal adviser recommends it, you could also raise a civil action. See below.

How do I bring a civil claim against the police?

Of course, complaints to the police or the IOPC are still within the police system. You might decide that the remedies they can provide are not suitable, or that they have not dealt with your complaint sufficiently. In that case, you may want to bring the police to court, so that an independent judge can decide the case and the remedy. This is called an Action Against the Police and is a civil claim.

We understand that often holding the police to account is your primary aim when bringing a civil claim, and they are useful for this. However, civil claims against the police are very expensive. The police throw a lot of resources into these and have a very well funded legal department. If you lose, you could end up paying their legal costs. This is why we would advise you speak to a solicitor before bringing a claim, as the costs implications can be huge. See our costs section below.

How do I bring a civil claim against the police?

As this is a civil claim, you should hire solicitors who will help investigate the event in question, build your case and take this to the court.

Solicitors will cost money, and we would recommend first asking for advice on the merits balanced against the costs of the case. See our “How much could this cost?” section below.

What are the time limits in bringing a civil claim?

There are time limits to bringing a civil claim against the police. These are known as the ‘limitation period’ and they are different depending on the claim which you are bringing.

The time limits applicable in some common claims are:

  • Wrongful arrest – 6 years from the date of detention
  • Trespass to Land – 6 years from the date of trespass
  • Death in Custody – 6 years from the date of death
  • Assault / Battery – 3 years from the date of injury
  • Human Rights Breach – 1 year less 1 day from the date of breach
  • Discrimination – 6 months less 1 day from the date of act
What remedies are available through a civil claim?

If you win the case, the court can order the police to provide certain remedies, including:

  • A “finding of liability”: this confirms that the police are responsible for the events in question.
  • A “declaration”: this is similar to a finding of liability, but tends to refer to specific human rights abuses.
  • “Damages”: this will be a payment from the police to compensate you for the loss and damage you have suffered (unfortunately these are limited; unless there is serious physical and mental harm, the costs of litigation will often outweigh the damages).

Keep in mind that often the sum of money awarded in damages are modest relative to the costs of bringing a claim. This should not discourage you from seeking a finding of liability against the police and damages. But it is worth getting legal advice so you can make an informed decision about whether to bring a claim.

You might also agree to an out of court settlement with the police. In that case, the police can agree to things which the court could not order them to do themselves, such as:

  • An apology (public or otherwise)
  • An agreement to make sure lessons are learned and/or training implemented
  • Deleting your records from national police systems
How much could this cost?

Legal Aid is available for actions against the police, so it is worth checking on this through the government website and when you talk to solicitors. However, note that the eligibility criteria for Legal Aid is very strict.

A lot of firms will offer “conditional fee arrangements” (similar to “no win no fee”). Additionally, if you do win, the court may also order the police to pay most of your legal fees (they are rarely required to pay all of them, so you are likely to be left with some to pay).

If your encounter with the police was due to your part in a protest, BPLS has a network of great lawyers who may be able to take on your case. Contact us if you think that is relevant to you.

What about judicial review?

A judicial review is a legal challenge brought against a public body when they have acted unlawfully. As the police are a public body, a judicial review claim can be brought against them for the actions of a police officer. The IOPC is also a public body, and so judicial review can be used to appeal against one of their decisions if it was unlawful.

Judicial reviews are expensive, complex and offer very limited remedies. We have provided this information for the sake of completeness, but a civil claim will usually offer a simpler route to relevant remedies.

What should I do if I want to bring a judicial review claim?

Judicial review is a complex process, and you need to start the claim within 3 months of the event in question. If you are bringing a case against the IOPC because you disagreed with their appeal decision, that 3 months starts running from the date you receive their letter.

If you are intending to make a judicial review claim you therefore need to approach a solicitor as soon as possible, and ensure that they have judicial review experience.

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