Law Review Guest Post: ‘Be careful what you say. The authorities are listening.’

Law Review: Guest Post- ‘Be careful what you say. The authorities are listening.’
BY Iain Gould

We have all been shocked recently by the revelations about phone hacking and the gross invasion of personal data.

What people may not be aware of is that conversations with public bodies may not regarded as private, so that an off- the- cuff remark made in the heat of the moment can have devastating consequences.

I currently act on behalf of Ms M, a university graduate, who called Trading Standards to complain about her insurers. My client had recently lost her mother after a long illness and was overcome with the stress of it all. During the call she said, “ I feel so fed up with all this; it’s so hard. My mum has just died and sometimes I think it would be easier to just end it all myself and give up the struggle.” She pulled herself together and the conversation with the Trading Standards officer ended amicably.

Thinking no more of it, Ms M got herself ready to go shopping and, as she was about to leave home, heard a female voice call out her name from the hall. Surprised, Ms M went to the hallway to find 3 police officers standing on her new beige carpets with their boots on. When she asked what the police were doing in her home, they told her that Trading Standards had called them saying that Ms M had threatened to kill herself.

Ms M was shocked that her off- the- cuff remark had been taken so seriously and told the police that she had no such intention, that it was said at an unguarded moment, and at a time of great stress. She politely asked the officers to leave.

Ignoring her, the police officers started asking questions, rifling through her personal possessions and searching her home generally without explanation or cause.

Ms M refused to assist them with this unwarranted invasion of her privacy and was told, “we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You either comply with us and answer questions or we’re taking you in”.

Ms M refused to be intimidated by such threats and was then told that she was under arrest for breach of the peace.

Ms M, a slight figured, middle-aged, disabled woman, was forcibly handcuffed and escorted from her home by the officers in full view of her neighbours, at least 10 of whom had come outside to see what was happening.

She was taken to the local police station and detained for 9 hours during which time the police arranged for her to be examined by a nurse and then a doctor before releasing Ms M without charge in the early hours of the morning.

Ms M was so embarrassed and humiliated that she did not leave home for over a week, after which time she spoke to her closest neighbour to explain what had happened. Her neighbour said that the police were going to break down Ms M’s front door until she offered them Ms M’s spare key. This was why they were able to gain unannounced access to her home.

Ms M approached me to pursue a claim for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and assault; for which the police have already admitted liability.

I am also investigating the merits of pursuing a claim against Trading Standards for breach of the Data Protection Act.

During her arrest, Ms M complained that she was living in a police state. Given the actions of Trading Standards and the police that day, I find it hard to disagree.

Iain Gould is a solicitor specialising in actions against the police.

10 thoughts on “Law Review Guest Post: ‘Be careful what you say. The authorities are listening.’

  1. Did the police knock on the door? If they did why didn’t she answer?

    I guess it’s a rock and a hard place that Trading Standards found themselves in. If the call ended amicably the fact that they still decided to call the police is a little odd though.

    We do live in a society that is petrified of litigation. If there is even a small degree of concern people make the call and pass the responsibility to someone else. Most people would argue they would rather be criticised for doing too much than too little. It seems though that doing to much is now also opening the door to a legal action. We end up not being safe no matter what decision we make. That’s a very sorry state of affairs.

  2. If the trading standards person had done nothing, and the Ms M had committed suicide would there be a case to answer for Trading Standards or their employee?

  3. This begs the obvious question of just what can people say to officials. Is every comment to be always construed in the worst possible way? On the basis of what the post states, I see no reason to support the Trading Standards Officer acting in this way.

    The case highlights yet again the unacceptable “elasticity” of breach of the peace. The slightest objection by this lady to what the Police were doing at her home would be construed by them as a breach of the peace and thus as justification for the arrest.

    We saw breach of the peace being used extensively at the time of the Royal Wedding to clear people considered to be “undesirable” from the streets – please see my post back in April:

    http://obiterj.blogspot.com/2011/05/arrests-in-london-on-29th-april-breach.html

  4. This is a real example of the Nanny State in operation.

    Although DPA 1998 protects information about a person’s mental health or condition as “sensitive data” but Schedule 3 (a) removes that protection in cases where the data controller deems a life or death matter is at stake.

  5. What puzzles me: Police knew that woman in a ‘vulnerable’ state of mind – hence the visit.

    Good so far… Police right to check on person in this situation. If this report is proven in the terms above – the wheels appear to have dropped off with the ‘threat to take her in, the arrest and public humiliation of arrest in front of neighbours?

    Two sides to every story, of course – but Iain Gould indicates that Police admitted liability for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and assault. Bizarre.

  6. @ Charon: Yes, the behaviour of the Police is puzzling. Why threaten criminal prosecution against a person believed to be in a suicidal state? Inconsistent, I would say.

    @ The Justice of the Peace. I am usually not a fan of the term “Nanny State” because it is often a criticism directed against the Welfare State (of which I am a fan). That said, there is a tendency amongst some state agencies to deny citizens liberties and human rights on “welfare” grounds. For example, social work agencies used to deny recipients of care access to the records complied about them on the grounds that it would be “too distressing” to release the records or similar twaddle.

    A cynic might say that access to these records was denied so that the withholding agencies could avoid accountability for their neglect or poor care decisions. Fortunately, Graham Gaskin took the UK to the ECtHR and won the right of access for care recipients. The fact that many care recipients have accessed their records and have suffered no significant harm suggests that the justification for denial was specious.

  7. From ObiterJ’s linked post, as he explains it better than me:

    For a breach of the peace … “Extensive case law exists in this area but it seems to establish that there must be some element of actual or possible disorder however slight.”

    I don’t see that there was a possibility of disorder.

    and

    “The concepts lack precision but, in practice, seem to enable the Police to arrest almost anyone who is doing something which either they dislike or which they consider others will dislike.”

    They call it a Welfare Check. Police bashing doors down is a common problem for residential Landlords; the practice and who pays for repairing what is … variable.

    There are multiple accounts (a couple of dozen) on a thread here at Landlordzone:

    http://www.landlordzone.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?9962-Police-raid-forced-entry-damage-what-recourse-for-L&highlight=police+entry

    Some are very Carry On – wrong house, tenant who left years ago, belief that landlord lived in a tenanted house, and so on.

    I wonder whether the neighbour has some legal vulnerability, which Ms M would be unlikely to pursue.

    I have run across at least one account where a Landlord let the police into a tenant house with the spare key, and was then cheerfully informed that his action in doing so might not be justifiable.

  8. It seems to me that very poor policing rather than the law lies at the root of what went wrong here.

    About a year ago my wife and I split up, and I was pretty devastated. To take my mind off things, I took on as much work as possible so that I did not end up brooding at home. My elderly father tried to call me at home one day when I was out, and panicked. He called the police who phoned me late in the evening when I got home.

    The police officer was a local man who asked how I was, explained the reason for his call, and after a friendly chat, that was that. I was a little embarrassed, rather cross with my father, but actually quite pleased to see that the police had responded in the way they had.

    I live in a very rural area, and am aware of two suicides in the area in the last year. Both were desperately sad cases which an early police intervention might have prevented.

    The truth is that while there are very good police officers, there are others who appear to lack all emotional intelligence and common sense.

    Oh, and my wife and children came back.

  9. Pingback: A Tale of Two Welfare Checks

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