Lawyers expose the police complaints commission

Published February 2008

The Guardian, February 2008

The Independent Police Complaints Commission faces a crisis of confidence after a network of more than a hundred lawyers who specialise in handling police complaints resigned en masse from the commission’s advisory body.

In a strongly-worded letter to the IPCC’s chairman, Nick Hardwick, the lawyers expressed their “increasing dismay and disillusionment” at what they described as “the consistently poor quality of decision-making at all levels of the IPCC”. They said the IPCC’s response to their earlier attempts to deal with problems had been “pitifully poor.”

The resignation is a blow to the morale and reputation of the IPCC, especially as it was welcomed by criminal lawyers when it was set up in April 2004. After 40 years of slow progress, the new organisation was seen as finally providing a robust and independent system for dealing with complaints against police officers.

But an investigation by the Guardian has found evidence of a cluster of administrative problems in the organisation. These include:

* A failure to provide effective oversight for the work of the police investigators who still handle most complaints;

* A pattern of favourtism towards the police with some complaints being rejected in spite of apparently powerful evidence in their support;

* Cases of indifference and rudeness towards complainants.

* Extreme delays, with some complaints remaining unresolved after years of inaction and confusion;

* Key decisions being taken by casework managers who have no legal qualifications, little relevant experience and minimal training;

* Investigators and senior commissioners failing to work effectively with the result that some decisions have had to be overturned with the threat of court action.

In one sample case among dozens which have been reviewed by the Guardian, Mrs Christine Hurst, whose son was stabbed to death in the spring of 2000, has been waiting for nearly eight years for a resolution of her complaint that police failed to protect him even though they knew that his killer had made repeated threats and were warned on the night of his death that the killer was waiting outside his house with a knife.  Mrs Hurst said: “Despite fighting all these years, I haven’t really got anywhere. The sheer fact that they can do this – and if they are doing it to me, they are doing it to other people as well. It is appalling.”

The Police Action Lawyers Group, which has been representing specialist lawyers from all over Britain on the IPCC’s advisory board, has tried repeatedly to warn the IPCC about its problems. In October 2005, for example, they presented Nick Hardwick with a dossier, warning that, with few exceptions, “mediocrity appears to flourish unchecked, unmarked and, in many instances, unacknowledged”. In a subsequent email to Hardwick 18 months later, one lawyer complained that “attitudes appear to have deteriorated, reflected in recent examples which serve only to bring discredit and shame upon the IPCC.”

The October 2005 dossier summarised 12 sample IPCC decisions and reported: “Sadly, in many of the cases we have dealt with over the 18 months since April 2004, we have been very disappointed by the poor quality of such decisions and, worse, the apparent lack of impartiality reflected in the reasoning given for such decisions.

“One common feature that seems to emerge in this regard is that primary decision-making functions are apparently being devolved to inexperienced and poorly trained junior staff lacking the qualifications and experience necessary for this important work and without the benefit of adequate or effective quality assurance procedures. More generally, the performance of those responsible for supervising, managing or conducting investigations has given cause for serious concern about the quality of the service that the public can expect from the IPCC.”

In their joint resignation letter, signed last month (January) by two PALG members, the lawyers acknowledge ‘islands of good practice’ but say their attempts to raise their concerns through the IPCC’s advisory board were repeatedly frustrated: “Follow-up on agreed action points has been pitifully poor… At times, the situation has been almost farcical: key decisions on our agenda items have not been minuted and, when eventually minuted, have not been actioned, even after we have chased progress.”

The IPCC chairman, Nick Hardwick, says this is unfair and that PALG failed to respond to his attempts to review the working of the advisory board. Speaking to The Guardian, he rejected PALG’s grounds for resigning from the advisory board. He said IPCC evidence had held up in front of juries and coroners, and only a handful of decisions had been reversed after lawyers threatened to have them judicially reviewed.

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