The comments follow the disclosure that the Metropolitan Police paid what is believed to be a record pounds 1,761,000 in damages in the past year. Damages have been paid for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The force is considering how to reduce the amount being paid in civil actions. It might fight more cases in court.
Solicitors responded angrily, describing Sir Paul's remarks as 'disgraceful' and an attempt to shift blame away from the police.
Sir Paul was speaking at the launch of the force's annual report, which showed a 5 per cent drop in recorded crime in London - the first fall in six years. However there were substantial increases in reported sexual offences, racial incidents, violence, and assaults on police, including an upsurge in attacks involving firearms.
The controversy over compensation payments coincided with the news that Winston Silcott has been given an interim award of pounds 10,000 by the Home Office and offered a second payment for his wrongful conviction for the murder of Constable Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riot. Commenting on the size of the payment, he said: 'That's nothing . . . We're still going to take the police to the civil courts.'
The report reveals that the Metropolitan Police is increasingly paying damages before civil claims go to trial. The total amount in damages has risen from pounds 571,000 in 1991/92 to pounds 1,113,000 the following year, and pounds 1,761,000 this year.
The number of out-of-court payments has shot up dramatically. The police paid damages in 126 cases last year - compared with 43 in 1992/3 - in which legal proceedings had not begun. These cases, known as 'threatened actions' cost the police pounds 272,000, a rise of pounds 194,000 on the previous year. In cases where damages were agreed before a full hearing - known as settled actions - there were 97 more last year than the year before, costing pounds 1,436,000. Only damages actually awarded by courts have dropped.
Sir Paul yesterday suggested that in some cases the police will pay damages rather than go to court because of the potential costs involved. 'There's a balance to be struck.'
He said that it appeared that some firms of solicitors were specialising in suing the Metropolitan Police.
He said they were considering a change in the policy of rapid settlement of civil actions. Sir Paul said: 'One of the things that we fear is that more and more people are tactically suing the police, and the Metropolitan Police is being seen as a soft target. The notion is that we will settle rather than challenge, and we are looking at the public interest dimension of that.'
Raju Bhatt, of the London solicitor's Birnberg, who handles a large number of civil actions against the police and prison authorities, said: 'It's disgraceful for the Commissioner to suggest that the problem is with solicitors rather than with any misconduct in his police force and the machinery to deal with that misconduct. When the police do any wrong their reaction is to point the finger of suspicion at anyone but themselves.'
Suzanne Burn, secretary of the civil litigation committee of the Law Society, added: 'If a particular police force is having to pay out money it means that the cases are justifiable. It is very wrong to suggest otherwise.'
In the past two weeks the Metropolitan Police has made two awards for damages totalling almost pounds 55,000.
Silcott award, page 3
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