Suing and Complaints

Suing the Police and Making Complaints

The Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights in to UK law. From when it was brought into law in 1988, wherever possible, courts must interpret both existing and future legislation so as to be compatible with articles of the convention.

Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR assert the rights of everyone to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly respectively. These are not unlimited rights, of course, and the state may impose restrictions on them for the prevention of crime, public disorder, etc. (for example, in imposing conditions on protests). But any restrictions imposed have to be proportional to the objective being sought.

Anyone who goes on animal rights demos these days will be wearily familiar with the Section 12 and 14 orders which the police routinely use to control marches and assemblies. These sections are supposedly designed to balance the rights of protestors to demonstrate with the rights of others to go about their normal business and to be protected from crime. But nowadays the police are clearly abusing their powers under Section 14, so as to negate entirely the effect of a demonstration. If you can show this to be the case then you can use it as a defence if charged with breaching a Section 12 or 14 condition, namely that the order was unlawful. You can also use the act as a basis for suing the police.

Suing the Police

If you have been arrested and released without charge you may be able to sue the police for assault and unlawful imprisonment. When the police arrest you they must have reasonable grounds to suspect you of an offence. Even if you’re released without charge the police may still have had good reason to suspect you – it will depend on the circumstances. You can sometimes sue the police even if you haven’t been arrested. Activists have sued the police for assault/battery on numerous occasions.

It may take a couple of years to sue the police, but, if your rights have been breached, it is important to fight back. The money you win can be used to help campaigns, buy vehicles for hunt saboteurs, print posters and leaflets… the “No Comment” handbook was printed using compensation from a claim against the police!

What can I claim?

If you were arrested, you could make a claim for “Wrongful arrest”. “False imprisonment” would cover the time you were in police custody, so from when you were arrested, through transportation to the police station. Even if you were de-arrested before arriving at the police station and released, you would still have lost your liberty for the time that you were not able to go about your business freely.

If you were handcuffed/unlawfully searched/strip-searched/injured during the unlawful arrest and detention (as long as you were not being violent) then you could sue for “Battery”.

If the police falsified evidence or lied in order to get the CPS to charge you and take you to court, they would be guilty of “Malicious prosecution” – you would have to prove that the police knew they had no evidence that you had committed an offence. They will try to use the defence that they believed they had enough evidence to secure a prosecution and that the CPS were the ones who made the decision to take you to court. This is a more difficult point to prove, but not impossible.

Before the passing of the HRA, it was much harder to assert your European Rights. If you wanted to sue the police for infringement of your ECHR rights, you had to go to the European court in Strasbourg – a lengthy and time-consuming experience. Now the Act has “brought the ECHR home” you can sue the police in the county courts and the High Court. Section 6 of the Act states that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a convention right. Public authorities include both the courts and the police. So if a police officer acts in a way which is incompatible with a convention right, you can sue them for breach of Section 6 of the Act. And this also imposes an obligation on the courts themselves to develop the law consistently with the convention.

If, by arresting, detaining or injuring you, the police prevented you from being able to carry out a lawful protest, they discriminated against you based on your beliefs, they deprived you of your liberty or your rights of freedom of expression and assembly, you could sue them for breach of your human rights. You often will not get any extra money if the court agrees that your rights have been breached – the fact that they have agreed with you is usually seen as “compensation” enough, but it is good to have that decision made and it is more hassle for the police and their solicitors.

You may also be awarded “aggravated” and “exemplary” damages, though this is less common. “Aggravated damages” compensate you for loss of reputation, humiliation, etc. that stemmed from your arrest if the money awarded from wrongful arrest, battery and so on is deemed to not be enough to cover that humiliation, etc. Guidelines say that, unless a case is so extreme that it is worth awarding more than £5,000 then it is not worth awarding anything for this. However, it is not impossible to be awarded extra money for this. “Exemplary damages” on the other hand are more like a “fine” – they are awarded in cases where it has been decided that the defendant should have to pay more as a kind of punishment. Many civil courts however consider that the power to punish someone should be reserved for the criminal courts only.


You have a guideline of 3 years to sue the police for the above abuses of power from the day of your arrest (with the exception of breach of human rights which you have a year to sue for) but the sooner you get a claim started, the better and less rushed you will be – there can be a lot to organise at first.

You may be able to get legal aid in order to sue the police – contact a firm of solicitors for advice and to find out if they will be able to take your case. Unfortunately a lot of firms are often very busy with other cases, so, unless yours is quite a big case, it involves more than 1 or 2 activists or is one where there has been a serious abuse of power by the officers involved, firms won’t always take on the case.

You won’t always be able to get legal aid for your case – the solicitors will ask advice from a barrister (who they will instruct to argue your case if it goes to court) and often they will say that it will cost more money for the case to be taken to court than would be awarded by the court as compensation – it might cost “the system” £20,000 to take your claim to court and, if you’d only be likely to get £6,000 or £7,000 from it, they would deem it not to be “in the interest of the public”.

You may be able to find solicitors who will take on your case on a “No Win, No Fee” basis. If you have a strong case, you will usually be able to find a firm who will do this. In that case, while you may have to pay a small amount for administration costs, etc. you would not be liable to pay anything if the claim was not successful.

Otherwise, use the small claims procedure in your local County Court, which can be used for claims of up to £5,000 and is free to those on Income Support or JSA. It’s a pretty user friendly procedure designed for ordinary people not lawyers, and you don’t have to pay costs even if you lose. Your local courts will have leaflets explaining how the procedure works. When suing the police, you would usually sue the chief constable of the police force in question, so the “defendant” would be “The Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis” in Greater London or “The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary” for example.

Complaints against the police

If you are in a position where you cannot sue the police, whether unwilling to take the time required or unable to afford it, you can still take action against their unlawful or repressive behaviour. In the past making complaints has led to police officers known to have a bias or to be trouble makers being removed from policing animal rights events such as hunt sabs or demos.

It is not as satisfying as suing, but it is something that most police officers are nervous about as it will go on their record and thus harm their promotion chances. It will also have an effect on police targets, as complaint statistics have to form part of their annual reports. In one case, Kent police received so many complaints over their actions while attending hunts being sabotaged that they had to employ extra officers to deal with the case load and in the end ceased their oppressive regime to avoid generating the same number of complaints.

Every protestor has seen how the police can oppress, misbehave and act illegally. They only do so because they think they can get away with it. As every complaint made has to be investigated, and the police absolutely hate being dragged up in front of internal inquiries, it can be an effective tool in preventing your rights from being breached again. Do not expect that your complaint will always be upheld, but always remember, every complaint does have an effect, and will make them think twice next time.

To make a complaint you need to include the following details:
* What happened?
* When and where it happened?
* What was said?
* What was done?
* Other witnesses and how to contact them.
* Proof of damage and/or injury.
* Names and badge/warrant numbers of officers involved.

Police officers are expected to conform to a set of standards laid out in the Police Code of Conduct. Breach of the code can be a serious disciplinary matter. So, even if the police have not broken any laws, their behaviour may still amount to a breach of the code of conduct – grounds for a complaint in itself. It is good to quote the relevant articles from the code of conduct when putting in your complaint. Relevant sections for activists are going to be “fairness and impartiality”, “politeness and tolerance” and “use of force and abuse of authority”.

Put your complaint in writing to:

Independent Police Complaints Commission
90 High Holborn,
Tel: 020 7166 3000
Fax: 020 7404 0430

or online at:

This organisation (IPCC) replaced the Police Complaints Authority. They will pass on your complaint to the police force involved who will investigate the matter (yep, police investigating police… but it can work and it is extra hassle for them). If you are unhappy with how the police have dealt with your complaint, you can appeal to the IPCC who will then look into it.


New regulations are coming into place in April 2013 which will make it more difficult to make a civil claim against the police for unlawful arrest, assault, battery, malicious prosecution and so on.