The High Court has rejected a claim of harassment against a senior police officer in Dowson (and others) v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (No. 2) [2010] EWCH 2612 (QB).

Mr Justice Simon (Simon J) handed down judgment today in the case of Dowson (and others) v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (No 2), which involved six linked claims brought by police officers against their Chief Constable under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 arising from incidents which occurred in 2002 to 2003. The claims of three other police officers had been struck out previously by Coulson J in April 2009.

Just a few weeks prior to the start of the trial both the Claimants’ leading and junior counsel had been replaced. The trial itself, which lasted six weeks, and was heard at the High Court in Newcastle, involved 19 witness statements for the Claimants, 69 witness statements for the Defendant (the longest being 1,150 paragraphs), as well as expert medical evidence. Much of the trial had to be heard in private due to sensitive operational police issues which might endanger the lives of covert human sources of intelligence (informants).

Background

The evidence concerned allegations made by detectives from Crime Team North (CTN), one of the major crime teams investigating serious and organised crime in Northumbria, against one of their senior officers, DCI Pallas, and the Chief Constable on the basis that he was vicariously liable for his actions. Due to operational policing reasons the Claimants were all removed from CTN.

The allegations, made by a small number of officers from CTN, mainly concerned the approach and management style of DCI Pallas in operating CTN compared to what had gone on previously.

Prior to issuing proceedings the Claimant had lodged grievances relating to the conduct of DCI Pallas. These were internally investigated by senior officers of Northumbria Police and, save for two minor complaints, all the grievances were rejected. Subsequently, following the collapse of a criminal trial involving evidence being given by officers of CTN, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) became involved. The IPCC appointed an independent police force to investigate, which found that the allegations against DCI Pallas were unsubstantiated.

The individual allegations made by the Claimants ranged from not being given a Christmas card by DCI Pallas when others at CTN had been, to bullying and instructing detectives to act unlawfully.

By the time the trial started the Claimants’ allegations had been whittled down to a mere 69 separate allegations of harassment.

Given the nature of the crimes being dealt with at CTN - large scale drugs supply, firearms offences, armed robbery involving lengthy and detailed investigations – it is important to bear in mind this was a difficult working environment. The Judge described it as stressful and where “case-hardened officers were dealing with career-hardened criminals”.

Decision

After reviewing the case law, Simon J rejected each of the harassment claims made by the Claimants. In doing so he made some extremely important observations on the issues involved in considering harassment claims made within hierarchical or rank-based organisations.

He explained that “In any hierarchical system (such as the police) subordinates should follow the orders of those in a senior rank within the confines of the law.” However, he then went onto say that “there is another important reciprocal duty: not to subvert the authority of others by disloyal remarks about fellow officers addressed to those of lower rank. This is an obligation which both DCI Pallas and Mr Dowson overlooked on occasions.”

The Judge went onto comment that “If what occurs is the expression of strong disagreement over operational or managerial decisions in the course of routine work, it is difficult to see how it can amount to an act of harassment. If on the other hand there were repeated capricious disagreements with a subordinate, amounting to oppression and accompanied by abuse, I can see little reason why it might not give rise to a claim, provided all the other requirements of the cause of action were satisfied”.

Although there were clearly differences of opinion, some of which were extremely strongly held, and intemperate and barrack-room language used, Simon J stated “Although this was more than simply a clash of personalities, it was not conduct which was calculated to cause distress and, although it was unacceptable, it was not oppressive in the sense described in the cases. It was not a tormenting by constant interference or intimidation. Rather it was a curt and dismissive attitude which was likely to have the effect, even if unintended, of undermining both Mr Dowson’s own self-confidence and the esteem in which he was held by others.”