Judges curtail juries' ability to punish police curbed by court

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The freedom for juries to punish the police for misconduct was dramatically curtailed yesterday under Court of Appeal guidelines designed to cap "exemplary" damages awards at around pounds 25,000 or less in most cases.

Giving judgment in two test appeals by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, the court slashed pounds 185,000 off the punitive element of a record pounds 220,000 jury award to a south London hairdresser, Kenneth Hsu, last year for wrongful arrest, assault and false imprisonment.

Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, said that pounds 15,000 (plus pounds 20,000 basic and aggravated damages for maltreatment) should "suffice to demonstrate publicly the strongest disapproval of what occurred and make it clear to the commissioner and his force that conduct of this nature will not be tolerated by the courts".

Mr Hsu, 34, was held in a neck lock, punched, kicked, struck across the face with keys and racially abused after officers tried to force their way into his home over a dispute with a lodger. He made two unsuccessful complaints to the Police Complaints Authority. His solicitor, Sadiq Kahn, said: "We have previously had clients who have been awarded similar amounts, yet police officers continue to go unpunished."

In the second appeal, the three appeal judges declined to interfere with a pounds 51,500 award (pounds 1,500 in basic damages and pounds 50,000 exemplary) to Claudette Thompson, a mother of three in her thirties, for false imprisonment, assault and malicious prosecution. But they made it clear that the appropriate award would have been pounds 20,000 for basic and aggravated and pounds 25,000 exemplary.

Under the guidance yesterday, judges will direct juries that the starting point for basic damages should be pounds 500 for the first hour of loss of liberty, with damages on a reducing scale thereafter. In cases of malicious prosecution, the figure should start at pounds 2,000. Aggravated damages, to reflect high- handed, insulting, malicious or oppressive conduct, should begin at pounds 1,000.

Exemplary damages, to mark the jury's disapproval of police conduct, would be unlikely to be less than pounds 5,000, but misconduct would have to be particularly deserving of condemnation to justify pounds 25,000. The absolute maximum was pounds 50,000, but only for particularly bad conduct directly involving officers of at least the rank of superintendent.

Ms Thompson was assaulted by four or five officers. Officers, including two inspectors, later gave false evidence.

The judges urged that seven more appeals against heavy jury awards should be settled out of court. But Jane Deighton, solicitor for Daniel Goswell who received pounds 302,000 after being hit over the head with a truncheon, saidthat she would have to consider the ruling's implications. "The Court of Appeal has debased the role of the courts in upholding civil liberties. The maximum is now comparable to that payable in wholly incomparable libel cases. The court condemned the police behaviour but their words will be ignored by the police even as they consider this judgment."