| ||The Guardian reports that Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, has “privately lobbied the home secretary to make it harder for people to take legal action against his force.” |
His recommendations include:
“Making it harder for people to sue the police for damages in civil actions. These usually involve allegations of brutality or wrongful arrest.”
“Loading higher costs on to officers and other staff suing police forces at employment tribunals. These cases include claims of discrimination and unfair treatment.”
“Charging the public a fee for freedom of information requests. The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to help citizens hold public bodies to account.”
This revelation has been denounced by legal, civil liberties and human rights experts, with Solicitor Louise Christian calling it “an attempt by the police to escape the rule of law. When access to justice is denied, the principle of the rule of law is damaged. The rich and powerful can always go to court, it's people without means who can't.”
Stephenson has framed the proposals to the Home Secretary in the language of the age of austerity initiated by the current coalition government.
“Stephenson sets out a list of ideas to cut costs and free policing from what he sees as excessive bureaucracy. He says civil actions against his force generate money for lawyers, and drain police budgets.”
However, James Welch, legal director of Liberty has rebutted, “The ability to challenge police misconduct in court is a vital constitutional safeguard against abuse of power. Under current rules, if you lose a case in the civil courts you can expect to be ordered to pay your successful opponent's legal costs.”
The implication of the first measures that Sir Stephenson proposes is that cases such as those of Babar Ahmad, who suffered a brutal assault at the hands of police officers could be denied justice. They also make it more difficult to hold police to account over arrests such as those of 12 Pakistani nationals that were detained by police but then released without charge. The media hype generated around this issue at the time had already condemned these innocent people as a threat. Further incidents include growing catalogue of evidence against the police at the time of the G20 protests in 2009 where charges of the possible manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson were brought against one officer. And let’s not forget the disgraceful shooting of Charles de Menezes and subsequent attempts at covering up that disaster.
On employment tribunals, surely the starting point should be questioning how many such employment tribunals occur for the police? Paul McKeever, chief of the Police Federation of England and Wales reportedly reveals, “I'm not aware of speculative claims being made.”
Furthermore, charging the public for freedom of information requests will do nothing more than deter the public from executing such requests – something which does not serve well for transparency and accountability.
All of these measures serve to place a premium on justice. Cases such as those of Babar Ahmad serve to highlight exactly why the services that are designed for our protection must be subject to the light of scrutiny and accountability in order that they continue to serve us effectively. The police, as with every other public service, are there to serve the needs of the taxpayer. If those very people cannot hold them to account to determine whether those needs are met, then it is a sorry state for a vibrant democracy.
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