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Supreme Court slams police for ‘systemic and investigatory failings’ in John Worboys case

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Even advocacy by Lord Pannick couldn’t convince justices otherwise

The Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal brought by the police concerning its investigation into black cab rapist John Worboys. Lord Kerr told the court this morning the police’s “systemic and investigatory failures” amounted to a human rights violation, setting an important precedent on police liability.

The appeal was brought by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, represented by Blackstone Chambers‘ Lord Pannick QC and 5 Essex Court‘s Jeremy Johnson QC. The respondents were two victims who had reported their sex assaults to the police: in one case Worboys was quickly arrested as a suspect but released without charge, and in the other he was never identified.

The victims — who were represented by Matrix Chambers‘ Phillippa Kaufmann QC and Doughty Street Chambers‘ Ruth Brander in the Supreme Court — brought claims for failure to conduct effective investigations into their claims. The kernel of these claims was that these failures constituted a violation of the victims’ rights under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the prohibition against torture. There were six interveners in the case, including: Liberty, Rape Crisis England and Wales, and End Violence Against Women Coalition.

Outside the Supreme Court. Image via Twitter: @RapeCrisisEandW

In the lower courts, the victims were successful and awarded £41,250 in compensation between them. It was made clear at the Supreme Court that the police, though having launched the appeal, were not seeking to have the awarded compensation revoked.

The main issue on appeal, Kerr told the court today, was the nature of the obligation imposed on the state to investigate crimes committed by a private individual. In his judgment, Kerr said:

“In order to be an effective deterrent, laws which prohibit conduct constituting a breach of article 3 must be rigorously enforced and complaints of such conduct must be properly investigated. There is a clear line of Strasbourg authority for the duty to properly investigate reported offences and allegations of ill-treatment.”

“Simple errors” or “isolated omissions” will not amount to violations of article 3, but “conspicuous or substantial errors in investigation” will. Some of the appellant’s own “operational failings” were listed in the Supreme Court’s judgment, and include: failure to promptly interview a key witness, failure to collect CCTV evidence and failure to conduct searches. “There were serious deficiencies in this case,” Kerr said.

But that’s just one justice’s words. The judgment has been described as “academic lawyers’ paradise” because of its multiple facets, the judges disagreeing not on the outcome of the case but its reasoning.

Lady Hale agrees with Kerr, who gave the main judgment, while Lord Neuberger — who has since retired from judicial life — wrote his own judgment, though also agrees with Kerr. Hale also agrees with Neuberger’s judgment, while Lord Hughes and Lord Mance gave separate judgments. Phew.

What law students may be wondering is how this all fits into the general immunity protecting the police against tort law claims, from Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police.

This is explored in Neuberger’s judgment which notes “our domestic law adopts the view that, when investigating crime, the police owe no duty of care in tort to individual citizens”. Neuberger, the former president of the country’s highest court, says it is “understandable” that human rights law “differs from domestic tort law in holding that it is right to impose an investigatory duty on the police”.

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6 Comments

Ciaran Goggins

This goes deep, check out role of ex Det Ch Supt Chris Jarratt, who will have a starring role, in April at the largest civil action against plod in UK history.

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Right Thinking Legal Cheek Reder

All right mate, put away your tin foil hat.

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Anonymous

Of course the police in this country will be rife with ‘systemic and investigatory failings’. You are talking about a country that has a Direct Entry Inspector recruitment programme for the toff children of current toff police senior staff:

‘How can you help guide a team of police officers to detect and deter crimes, thus protecting the citizens and enforcing the rule of law?’

‘I don’t know about all of that, but I got a [Oxbridge/Redbrick] 2:1 in Art History and my dad is the Superintendent.’

‘That’s much better than actual experience and relevant qualifications!’

No wonder legal aid keeps getting cut; the police forces have become so utterly incompetent through nepotism and top-heavy bureaucracy that the defence lawyers have to be financially squeezed into pushing clients to plead guilty.

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Anonymous

Sounds like a couple of my family members in the police. They mentioned something similar on numerous occasions. Although they may have just been lashing out because of that extended pay freeze.

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Anonymous

Direct entry has nothing to do with the old boy net and everything to do with ensuring that the brightest people bypass the lower ranks and go straight to positions where their abilities are properly utilised. It is designed to encourage clever people to join the police. The problem with the police is that the vast majority of them are poorly educated and of low intellect. If you entrust such people with significant powers, the chances are that they will not exercise those powers properly. It is time for the police to be organised along the lines of the army, with non commissioned and officer ranks, with the latter being for the most able who will fill the leadership rolls.

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Anonymous

That may be the theory behind it, but I have also seen this system being completely abused out in the regions. My local department had a few direct entries that couldn’t even be bothered with being police. They just wanted to use it to step into a cushy civil service job in London.

The problem with your solution is that it still justifies paying constables low wages, and with cops, you REALLY get what you pay for. Other western countries pay police quite well at junior ranks and usually require them to have good university degrees. Through my family I know a couple cops in Canadian city departments and they had massive competition to get into their jobs. Their first year PC salaries were the equivalent of £50,000 (admittedly with a bit of “overtime” pay… maybe £40-42k before?), and all their training cohort had at least one university degree. Several others were post grads.

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