Leading Barrister: Police drivers livelihood and liberty remain at risk
Home Office reassurance that police officers will not be prosecuted for pursuit drives “mean nothing” in reality, a legal expert has told delegates at this year's Roads Policing Conference.
Barrister Mark Aldred from QEB Hollis Whiteman touched on his first-hand experience of representing officers who have fallen foul of the law in a lively talk at the event in Hinckley, Leicestershire, on Tuesday.
Under existing legislation emergency responders who drive outside of the careful and competent driver legal standard can be jailed for dangerous driving. In addition the police could be subjected to gross misconduct proceedings.
Mr Aldred raised the case of PC James Holden, from 2012, who was prosecuted for a collision with a suspect, experiencing “12 months of hell” in the words of the then Hampshire Police Federation Chair, John Apter, who's now the National Chair.
The barrister said: “Here we are seven years later and police officers are still going through hell. I’m afraid as long as police officers keep driving, the government probably doesn’t feel the need or the urgency to change the legislation in the way it agrees it needs to be changed.”
Delegates were reminded of the Metropolitan Police initiative of tactical contact with moped criminals in London, which was hailed by police commanders and the Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Mr Aldred continued: “The implicit message to the officer is: You can go and get these guys now - the Home Secretary is on board, the Met commanders are on board. However, the reality doesn’t match.”
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) will look at the letter of the law and conclude that police officers have a case to answer, delegates were told. And this can result in a long and traumatic legal process with the officer’s life on hold and their liberty in the balance.
Delegates were told about PC Copland, who had pursued an offender and had then threatened the officers with a house brick before running off on foot . PC Copland then drove after him to head him off when the collision occurred. PC Copland was then subjected to a lengthy court case by determined prosecutors, who were only eventually halted by an “old fashioned judge” deciding there was no case to answer.
Mr Aldred said he has regularly written to prosecutors to quote the official Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that it “is very unlikely to be appropriate to proceed with a prosecution on public interest grounds” adding that this has never yet resulted in proceedings being stopped: “Until that law is changed, those assurances mean nothing.”
During the session, delegates also heard from PFEW’s pursuits lead Tim Rogers, on the progress made over the last year to achieve a change in the law to exempt officers – in appropriate circumstances – from the common legal standard. He said: “The good news is there are people at the Department of Transport and the Home Office who are genuinely committed to dealing with this. The Government assured us a change in the law would be achieved by the end of 2019 but "due to Brexit" they have not found the time. I’m sorry but Brexit is no excuse – this has been going on far too long.”
Police Minister Nick Hurd, who did not attend the Conference, took to Twitter to say: "I understand and share the frustration about the slow pace of progress on changing the law and processes around police pursuits in order to give trained police drivers more confidence. We are working closely to get the detail right. The will is there I can assure you."
Mr Rogers also berated the IOPC for sending five representatives to a stakeholder meeting with him on the day before the Roads Policing Conference but not being able to find anyone to attend the event itself.