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Government Outlines Reforms To Police Complaints System

Legal Experts Say Reforms Are ‘A Missed Opportunity’


The Government has announced a range of new measures aimed at ensuring police officers are held to account by making the complaints system fairer, easier to follow and more transparent.

The reforms, expected to form part of the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill, come after a report from the IPCC revealed a total of 34,863 complaints were recorded in 2013-14, up 15 per cent on the previous year. A large majority of the complaints alleged that officers were intolerant, impolite, uncivil and that they failed or neglected their duty.

Research by the Office for National Statistics in 2013 found 35 per cent of people do not have confidence that the police will deal with their complaint fairly and 78 per cent of people said they were not satisfied by how their complaint was handled.

The new plans outlined by the Government, include extending the definition of a complaint, requiring all complaints to be recorded and giving Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) the discretion to take over certain aspect of the police complaints system.

The reforms will also allow police forces to bring disciplinary proceedings against officers who have resigned or moved to other police forces before complaint investigations have concluded.

Under the current system the overwhelming majority of complaints are investigated by officers from the same force as the officer against whom the complaint has been brought.  Only the most serious complaints, typically involving death or life changing injuries, are investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). 

Although the Government has signalled a desire to increase the IPCC’s funding to allow it to under more investigations, this does not appear to form part of the proposed reforms.

Civil liberties experts at Irwin Mitchell, who regularly represent clients in serious and complex complaints and civil claims against the police, have reacted cautiously to the proposals.

Gus Silverman, a civil liberties lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said:

Expert Opinion
“An effective, impartial police complaints system is essential to maintaining public confidence and preventing police misconduct from undermining the work of good police officers.

“The current police complaints system regularly fails to uphold meritorious complaints brought by victims of police misconduct and negligence. Unfortunately we regularly see cases were complaints are not investigated with sufficient rigour or objectivity.

“This is often because complaints against police officers are normally investigated by colleagues from the same force, and often from the same police station. At times complaints are investigated by officers or civilian employees who do not properly understand the law concerning governing powers. Even when complaints are rigorously investigated complainants often find it difficult to trust the police’s conclusions because of a perceived lack of impartiality.

“The fact that so many appeals are being escalated to the IPCC and then upheld after an investigation indicates that its caseworkers are better able to consider complaints objectively because of their independence from the police.

“Some of the proposed reforms, such as allowing disciplinary proceedings to be taken against officers who have retired or transferred to another force, are welcome. However, in general these reforms are a missed opportunity to give the IPCC the resources and powers it needs to investigate all serious complaints.”
Gus Silverman, Solicitor

Regarding the proposals to transfer some complaint functions to PCCs, Gus Silverman said:

Expert Opinion
“Giving PCCs the ability to take over some aspects of police complaints risks making the system worse. While it is important to introduce more independence into the system, PCCs are unlikely to possess the necessary skills, resources or experience to deliver an effective service to complainants. Transferring these functions to a properly resourced IPCC, which could be held more easily accountable, would lead to improvements in the way complaints are handled.

“Furthermore, allowing PCCs to pick and choose which complaint functions they take over may establish a postcode lottery where complaints will be handled under different systems, and to different standards, depending on where in the country the complainant happens to live.”
Gus Silverman, Solicitor

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