Christopher Jeffries, the man wrongfully accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in December 2010, is back in the news this week as the fall-out from the Leveson enquiry continues.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published yesterday, confirms that Mr. Jeffries is pursuing a civil compensation claim against the police (Avon and Somerset Constabulary) for ‘false imprisonment, breach of human rights, and trespass to person and property’ (see point 3 of his statement from his submissions to the Leveson enquiry by clicking here).
He has already received compensation from eight newspapers for libel following his ‘vilification’ (to quote Lord Chief Justice Judge) in the national media, who referred to him as a ‘peeping tom’ and ‘nutty professor’, among other things.
It appears that the press paid out relatively quickly. However, his claim for compensation against the police continues, almost two years later. Why? As a solicitor who specialises in actions against the police and routinely deals with claims which, like Mr. Jeffries’ case, involve wrongful arrest and the resulting false imprisonment, I have some insight which may assist.
What is Mr. Jeffries’ case?
Mr. Jeffries’ claim will be based on the notion that his arrest was unlawful as it was not founded on a reasonable suspicion that he committed an arrestable offence, or some other lawful authority.
As a consequence, he will argue, for every minute of the three days he was detained he was subject to false imprisonment.
As a result, Mr. Jeffries may claim that he is entitled to compensation for injury, distress, discomfort and inconvenience, loss of liberty and damage. In addition, he will no doubt claim aggravated damages (for the additional humiliation and suffering caused), as well as exemplary damages (for the arbitrary, oppressive and unconstitutional conduct perpetrated by the police).
Why is it taking so long?
According to The Observer’s report on 24 November 2012, Mr. Jeffries’ civil claim against the police is not yet settled. It is nearly two years since his arrest. The police will surely have concluded their investigations and stated their position on liability. The fact that the claim has not settled out of court is telling.
I expect that the police have denied liability and argued that the arresting officer had a reasonable suspicion to justify the arrest ‘to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question’ (s.24(5)(e) Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)).
‘Reasonable suspicion’ involves a two pronged test and is governed by s.24 PACE (as amended by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005).
The first part is a subjective test: it is for the arresting officer to verify that he or she had an honest suspicion that the arrested person committed the offence.
The second part is an objective test: did the arresting officer hold that suspicion on reasonable grounds? If so, do his/ her reasons for arrest amount to a reasonable belief that the arrest is necessary, and did they give grounds for arrest as soon as reasonably practicable?
If the police can satisfy the court that both tests were met then the arrest was lawful and Mr. Jeffries’ claim for that head of damages would fail (although other claims could still be made for, say, excessive detention, breach of Human Rights etc.).
Proving ‘reasonable suspicion’
For Mr. Jeffries to prove his claim for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment it is essential that he satisfies the court that the arresting officer did not have reasonable suspicion to arrest him.
Lord Devlin in Hussein v Chong Fook Kam (1970) defined it by saying:
‘suspicion in its ordinary meaning is a state of conjecture or surmise where proof is lacking; ‘I suspect but I cannot prove’…suspicion can take into account matters that could not be put in evidence at all.’
So, while a ‘hunch’ may not be enough, the test to be met is far lower than legal proof.
It is irrelevant as to whether the person arrested actually committed the offence. Even if the officer is completely mistaken, and the person arrested is wholly innocent, providing the officer can satisfy the two-part test above, the arrest will be lawful.
Proving Mr. Jeffries’ compensation claim against the police
Will the police accept that, on balance, Mr. Jeffries was wrongfully arrested and agree to settle his claim? Or will he have to take court proceedings and go to trial? Time will tell.
Mr. Jeffries is innocent. He suffered greatly due to another man’s deplorable acts and has rightly received compensation for libel. My heartfelt sympathies go to him.
However, being innocent and receiving compensation for what was written about him in newspapers does not automatically mean that he has also a claim for wrongful arrest/ false imprisonment.
There are complicated issues of law and fact to be considered and, as I have explained above in considering the issue of reasonable suspicion, the police have to satisfy a very low threshold in order to justify the arrest, avoid paying any compensation, and being on the receiving end of more negative publicity.
In my experience most actions against the police are fiercely contested by the police’s legal teams. The fact that such a high profile individual as Christopher Jeffries is still fighting nearly two years on shows how difficult such cases are to pursue.
These cases are difficult, but not impossible. I have successfully argued on numerous occasions that the police wrongfully arrested my clients when the circumstances were equally challenging.
If Mr. Jeffries can prove his claim, he ought to receive a sense that justice has been done. For many of my clients, that makes the hard fight worthwhile. No doubt Mr. Jeffries would say the same.
Iain Gould is a solicitor who specialises in actions against the police.