BEING wrongly accused of anything – no matter how small and insignificant – can be a difficult and upsetting experience for the victim.
Thankfully, on many occasions, a minor accusation can eventually be shrugged off and forgotten, with little impact on the victim’s life.
But with many people living by the old adage of “there’s no smoke without fire”, a wrongful arrest related to a serious offence can have a highly damaging, and entirely unfair long-term impact.
It is something Andy Petherbridge, Associate of Chartered Institute of Legal Executives at Neil Hudgell Solicitors, sees first hand day to day in his role.
Many of his clients are honest, upstanding members of society who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves wrongly accused.
Some have stood wrongly accused of offences as serious as murder and sexual assault, and been locked up in a cell as a result.
And whilst the circumstances of all cases are different, Mr Petherbridge sees the same impact on his clients in each and every one.
“They are usually badly affected by the horrendous period they and their families have been put through by the time they are recalling their experience to me,” he says.
“Many have simply been going about their daily lives and have then found themselves locked up for no good reason, and accused of committing serious crimes.
“When they come to me they are usually, quite understandably, very angry, but their motivation is not usually about revenge or financial compensation, it is about restoring their reputation and standing in their community.”
Amongst the clients who have turned to Mr Petherbridge for his legal expertise and advice include a man wrongly arrested for murder and locked up for 36 hours, and another who was led away by police from his place of work, wrongly accused of committing a sexual assault.
In both cases, the investigating police forces soon realised the errors of their ways, and both men were told they had no case to answer. However, the damage had already been done.
“It is shocking at times,” added Mr Petherbridge.
“I think we all understand, and to a degree accept, that wrongful arrests will happen as part of the police trying to get to the bottom of a case. But when people are arrested and locked up by police, with no solid grounding at all for doing so, it is an appalling situation.
“Imagine being at home and the police suddenly knocking on the door, informing you that you are being arrested for murder, and leading you away. Your life would flash before you.
“Your reputation is stained immediately. In the murder case, the entire street was cordoned off as a potential crime scene, in full view of the neighbours. The man had children who came to visit and saw the house surrounded by police, and all because they had simply arrested the wrong person.
“It impacts not only on a person’s family and friends, but also at their work. People can find themselves suspended from their job for a long period of time.”
In the case of the client wrongfully arrested in relation to a sexual offence, the damages were immediate.
“This chap was arrested in front of his colleagues at work. Can there be anything worse than being accused of an offence such as this?” added Mr Petherbridge.
“Police turned up with a warrant to search his family home and, of course, had to say why they were there, causing further immense upset – all when they had the wrong man.”
Of course, there is a balance to be found, and Mr Petherbridge, who also represents clients for human rights breaches, says his work is not about punishing the police when genuine, and understandable errors are made in seeking to solve crimes and bring people to justice.
“The crux of the matter is whether or not there is a legitimate reason or need to arrest somebody,” he added.
“One person can accuse another of assaulting them, directly naming them, and that would perhaps give police a genuine reason for arresting that individual for questioning.
“However, if an assault has taken place, and an arrest is made entirely on assumption, with no grounds that necessitate arrest, that is a completely different, and potentially damaging, situation.”
With police forces dealing with increasing pressures due to decreasing resources and over-stretched departments, cases of wrongful arrest and detention are on the up nationally.
“We find much of our work is this area is now being passed to us from criminal lawyers who have examined the details of a case closely and recommended their clients to us,” added Mr Petherbridge.
“They know there has been a serious breach of duty and perhaps of human rights, and that is why we have such a good success rate for clients.
“In almost all cases, it is about clearing their name and restoring their reputation, which has been so badly damaged without any justification. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than ensuring a client gets a full apology from the force involved.
“Whilst the damage of a wrongful arrest for a serious offence can never be fully repaired, it is the least the victims deserve, and what they usually want the most.”