UK: A Greek Tragedy in Central London

Last Updated: 29 October 2010
Article by Catherine Kearney

Francis Churchill v Thames Valley Police and Patrick Churchill v Thames Valley Police, Central London County Court, January 2010

This trial of claims for police misfeasance, which rose from a three-day trial estimate to a seven-day hearing thanks to a combination of snowbound jurors and verbose claimant witnesses, had all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy as a tale of family discord was played out in the unprepossessing surroundings of Central London County Court.

Background

Francis Churchill, a 41-year-old unemployed man living at home with his elderly parents, was arrested by two police officers in his bedroom on 6 August 2004, following a complaint to them earlier that day by his mother of assault on her three weeks beforehand. His father, Patrick Churchill, aged 85 at the time of the trial, brought his own claim for assault. The two cases were heard together before HHJ Paul Collins, and jury. 

Section 33 Success

Mr Churchill Senior's claim was struck out on the first day of trial as statute-barred, the judge having refused to exercise discretion pursuant to section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 to allow the claim to continue. The police officer alleged to have assaulted Patrick Churchill attended court and gave evidence that he could not recollect the incident and the defendant proved prejudice.

The Remaining Claimant's Case

Mr Churchill Junior accepted that the police had reasonable grounds to arrest him. However, he claimed that the failure to tell him the full proper grounds for arrest "for assault occasioning actual bodily harm", and the date and circumstances of the alleged historic assault, made it unlawful. He also alleged that he had been thrown onto his bed, manhandled downstairs, punched on the jaw, handcuffed, dragged barefoot out of his house and thrown across the bonnet of a police car. He alleged that he had been intimidated en route to the police station and that upon arrival a rubber glove was snapped at him in a sinister way before his pockets were searched. 

The Defendant's Case

The defendant's defence was simple: her officers had reasonable grounds to arrest the claimant and did so by taking hold of him and telling him that he was under arrest for assault on his mother, which was sufficient. The claimant violently resisted arrest and continued to struggle whilst he was taken downstairs and placed in the police car using reasonable force. 

The Evidence

A combination of clearly recounted events by the police witnesses, careful cross-examination and detailed consideration of records resulted in the failure of the claimant's case. Significant contradictions included:

  • Francis Churchill failed to mention to the doctor at the police station that he was injured. 
  • He gave evidence that he had been punched on one side of his jaw but told a medical expert that it was on the other side of the jaw. 
  • He said he was pinned against the wall on the right but his father said that he was pinned against the wall on the left.
  • Patrick Churchill went to the police station where his son was being held but failed to complain about the supposed ill-treatment of his son.
  • Mrs Churchill gave impassioned evidence that she had seen the officers whipping the chair away from under her son and throwing him on the bed. However, in cross-examination she was confronted with her statement confirming that she was standing on the landing one floor below at that stage and was forced to admit that she could not possibly have seen what she had earlier claimed.  
  • The claimants' medical records revealed a history of violent family rows and assaults, undermining the Churchills' evidence that they formed a close and loving family unit. 

In summing up, the judge pointed out the discrepancies in the evidence given by the claimant and his witnesses. 

The Findings of Fact

The jury found unanimously that the defendant's officers had used words to convey to the claimant that he was under arrest for assault on his mother and that they had used reasonable force in arresting the claimant. They found that the alleged assaults by the officers had not occurred and the claim for assault therefore failed.

The Findings of Law

The judge had to determine whether the arrest, made on the words found by the jury to have been used, was lawful.

Any person who is arrested must be told in simple, non-technical language the grounds for the arrest, at the time of the arrest or as soon as practicable thereafter.

On the evidence, Francis Churchill was agitated and refused to comply with a reasonable request. It was, therefore, sufficient for the officers to have given him the minimum of information, namely to tell him that they were arresting him for assault on his mother, without needing to say "occasioning actual bodily harm" or giving the date (actual or estimated) of the alleged offence, as argued by the claimant. Sufficient information was given in the claimant's bedroom to make his arrest lawful, and full information was given at the police station. The claims for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment therefore failed.

Points for Defendants

  • As much information as is reasonably possible should be given at the time of arrest. If this is not possible, the reasons should be recorded.
  • In the officers' statements made after an arrest, there should be no shortening of the terms used for reasons of brevity or otherwise, such as "assault" when "assault occasioning actual bodily harm" is meant. The officers should, as much as possible, ensure that their contemporaneous statements include the exact wording used during the arrest as that will assist in jogging memories at a later stage if a civil claim is brought.
  • It is rare for a defendant to be able to establish the essential element of prejudice to succeed on a strike out, but here it could be proved.

Catherine Kearney acted for the successful defendant.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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