The police complaints system can be an effective way to hold a police force and/or specific police officers to account for their actions.
Any complaint will usually be made directly to the relevant police force, which will have its own processes for lodging the complaint online or by post. It is also possible to make a complaint via the Independent Office of Police Conduct (‘IOPC’) which will then direct the complaint to the relevant force for it to be investigated internally. The IOPC themselves will only investigate the most serious cases.
The complaints process is intended to be accessible to the public and individuals are able to make complaints directly. However, depending on the circumstances, a solicitor can be a distinct help. Specialist lawyers can advise on what can (and what cannot) be complained about, can help to gather the evidence and can assist in the proper preparation of the complaint itself.
Receiving proper legal advice at the beginning of the process ensures that the individual bringing the complaint knows what to expect from the process and that the complaint focusses on what is most relevant and important. This gives it the best possible chance of achieving the desired outcome.
A person is entitled to make a complaint if they consider that they have not been treated appropriately by the police. Some of the most common situations where this occurs are when people have been subjected to one or more of the following:
A police complaint should be brought within one year of the event which the complaint is about. A police force can decide not to investigate a complaint if it is brought outside of this period where there is considered to be no ‘good reason’ for the delay.
In most cases, the complaint will be investigated by someone from the police force in question. This person must not have been involved in the matter complained of.
How a complaint is addressed will depend on how serious it is considered to be. The least serious complaints should be ‘reasonably and proportionately investigated otherwise than by an investigation’. The more serious will be subject to a full investigation.
For the most serious complaints (including all complaints related to a death or serious injury) the police force must refer the complaint to the IOPC. If the IOPC consider that an investigation is required, the IOPC will undertake this.
One of the primary reasons to bring a complaint is to help ensure that no-one else experiences the same treatment. This can provide peace of mind to the victim of inappropriate police behaviour. A police complaint can be particularly helpful to an individual where they feel aggrieved by the conduct of a specific officer or officers as it can lead to direct consequences for the officer(s) involved.
If a complaint is proven, it could result in one or more of the following:
A successful police complaint cannot result in compensation. Compensation can be sought by bringing a separate civil claim against the police force (see below).
For more information on this please see ‘Challenging Police Powers’.
The ability to challenge a complaint outcome will depend on the facts of each complaint and the nature of its investigation. Some matters do have the right to review. Where there is no right to a review but the outcome decision is considered to be unlawful or irrational (or reasons for the decision have not been given), it may be possible to bring a challenge by way of an application for judicial review.
Anyone considering either exercising a right to review or applying for judicial review where that right is not available is urged to seek expert legal advice.
The time it can take from lodging a complaint to reaching a final conclusion varies significantly. The key factors which will determine the length of a complaint investigation will be the seriousness of the complaint (and so the process by which it is considered), the approach of an appointed complaint investigator and whether or not a right to review is pursued.
It is possible to bring a police complaint and to pursue a civil claim for compensation against the police force in relation to the same incident. A police complaint addresses officers’ professional conduct and so can lead to disciplinary proceedings or training. A civil clam can arise when officers’ actions are potentially unlawful. The two processes can therefore inform each other, but they are ultimately separate and are intended to achieve very different outcomes.
Ordinarily, the police complaint must conclude before a related civil claim can be litigated. However, when considering whether to pursue one of these remedies or both, it is important to bear in mind that they each have different deadlines.
Here again, the advice of expert lawyers can be invaluable in determining whether, and how best to pursue either or both remedies. If pursuing both, then it is important to strategise correctly to ensure that one approach supports the other.
It is possible to lodge a complaint about an incident before the conclusion of related criminal proceedings. However, the police force is likely to put the complaint on hold until the criminal case’s conclusion to ensure that the complaint investigation does not affect the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
In deciding when to lodge a complaint, it is important to bear in mind that a complaint should be lodged within one year of the incident in question.
The availability of legal aid for representation in relation to a police complaint will depend on an individual’s financial eligibility and the nature of the complaint. We are able to offer advice and assistance in respect of police complaints on either a publicly or privately funded basis.
Hickman & Rose expert police law team are able to help with all aspects of police complaints.