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.