Frustrated by the failure of its attempts to bring to book officers in the abortive investigation, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) called yesterday for changes to the law governing police disciplinary procedures.
Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, reacted with fury when it became clear that every one of the officers who let them down had escaped retribution. They threatened to sue Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
The PCA, which supervised a year-long review of the conduct of the Lawrence case, recommended that five detectives face disciplinary charges. The four most senior officers - Detective Chief Superintendent William Ilsley, Det Supt Brian Weedon, Det Supt Ian Crampton, and Det Chief Supt Roderick Barker - were already retired when the PCA announced its findings.
Had they still been serving in the Metropolitan Police, they would have faced serious disciplinary charges of neglect of duty relating to the investigation of Stephen's murder by a white gang in south-east London in April 1993.
Yesterday it was disclosed that Detective Inspector Ben Bullock, 49, second in command of the murder inquiry, intends to retire rather than face seven similar charges.
It also emerged that the PCA's decision to charge DI Bullock and the other officers was delayed for more than nine months while Scotland Yard argued over the wording of its report.
Peter Moorhouse, chairman of the PCA, the independent organisation that oversees investigations into complaints against the police, said he was "angry and dismayed" that all the senior officers accused of neglect had retired.
DI Bullock will retire at the end of April after 30 years' service with the Met, on an estimated pension of pounds 25,000 a year. He will thus join the growing ranks of officers around the country who have taken early retirement - or stood down on medical grounds - rather than face disciplinary charges. He is entitled to do so with impunity because he has completed 30 years of service. Once retired, officers are immune from sanction.
The PCA is calling for new legislation that would prevent officers who are facing disciplinary charges from retiring without having their cases heard.
A PCA spokesman said: "Justice needs to be seen to be done - both the officers and members of the public should be given an opportunity for their cases to be heard."
He added: "One has to ask why can officers suddenly announce they are going without facing the disciplinary hearing."
A Home Office source said that ministers would consider the proposal. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has already spoken out against early retirement by officers who escape justice by this route.
The disciplinary recommendations made by the PCA against the five officers in the Lawrence case were based on the findings of an inquiry by Kent Police into the original investigations of Stephen's murder in 1993.
The PCA's verdict, announced earlier this week, had been anxiously awaited by the Lawrence family, since it offered the last chance for any officers to be punished for the litany of incompetence that characterised the investigation.
The PCA also recommended that three serving officers should receive "formal advice" - in other words, a verbal warning - for their failure to keep a log of events at the scene of the stabbing.
Chief Supt Christopher Benn, the most senior officer at the scene of the murder, admitted to the inquiry that he did not consult intelligence records for information about potential racist suspects.
Insp Stephen Groves, who was in charge of a Territorial Support Group unit at the scene, suspected that Stephen's friend, Duwayne Brooks, might have committed the murder. Acting Insp Ian Little, who dealt with Stephen's parents at the hospital on the night of the killing, showed gross insensitivity towards them.
The public inquiry, chaired by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, will go much further than the PCA in assigning blame. As disclosed in The Independent last month, the draft of Sir William's report contains scathing criticism of 23 officers.
The final report is due out next month. All witnesses had immunity from disciplinary proceedings that might have arisen as a result of evidence given at the hearings.
Mrs Lawrence expressed her frustration yesterday at the disclosure of DI Bullock's plans.
"When my son was killed, nobody was there to catch the killers, and now disciplinary action actually can be taken after nearly six years, he ups and retires and still gets his full pension - and yet we are still here suffering."
Imran Khan, the family's solicitor, said that one of the options being considered by the Lawrences was to sue Sir Paul Condon for neglect of duty. Other possibilities included suing individual officers.
Sir Paul said yesterday: "I can understand the distress of Mr and Mrs Lawrence but it is now nearly six years since Stephen's tragic death and murder, and a number of officers in the case have retired. The officer referred to is now at the point where he is legally entitled to decide when he leaves the service.
"As the law currently stands, he was legally entitled to use his right to retire, and that's what he has done."
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "We can understand and sympathise with the sense of frustration of the Lawrence family as no one is to face disciplinary procedures as a result of the Police Complaints Authority investigation of the Stephen Lawrence case."