Murderer to sue prison over missed breakfast

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A CONVICTED murderer has won the right to sue the prison officers' union because wardens who locked him in his cell made him miss breakfast.

While other inmates at Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire were tucking into their bacon and eggs, Fathi Toumia, a Tunisian, remained locked in his cell because prison officers were holding a union meeting.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal in London ruled that this was grounds for "false imprisonment" paving the way for Toumia to sue the Prison Officers' Association.

Toumia, who was jailed for life at the Old Bailey in 1985 for killing a betting shop manager, at first had his case dismissed as "frivolous" by a judge in May 1997. But two Appeal Court judges yesterday resurrected his case when they ruled his legal grounds for suing the Prison Officers' Association were "at least arguable".

In a judgement with crucial implications for prisoners' rights, Lord Justice Brooke ruled: "It is at least arguable that a prison officer who deliberately locks a prisoner in his cell contrary to the orders of the governor will be guilty of the tort of false imprisonment."

The judge, sitting with Lord Justice Clarke, also broke new legal ground when he opened the way for Toumia to sue the Association for alleged "misfeasance in public office".

He said that, in his view, Toumia's false imprisonment claim would in the end be "doomed to failure" on the facts of the case. But that did not mean he did not have the right to take his case to a full trial.

Lord Justice Brooke said Toumi's claim arose out of an incident on March 3 1997 at HM Prison Whitemoor where prison officers were aggrieved by a new instruction relating to body searches on staff.

The officers held a meeting to discuss the grievance at about 7.30am and, although the prison governor authorised the meeting, it went on longer than had been originally sanctioned.

"Toumi's claim is based on a complaint that he was locked in his cell without food for the whole morning in circumstances in which, but for the action of the POA, he would have been let out both for breakfast and for other ordinary activities," the judge added.

Toumi said he had taken legal action to deter the POA from repeating "inhuman acts of depriving inmates of food for an extended period of time'" and that the case was "not just about breakfast".

Although prison officers have the same employment protection rights as other Crown employees, Lord Justice Brooke said their rights had "to some extent been emasculated" by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The Act, in effect, banned the POA from inducing prison officers to strike or disobey a governor's lawful orders.

The judge said there was no doubt that so long as a prisoner is detained with the governor's authority he is "lawfully detained". But the tort of unlawful imprisonment is defined as "deprivation of liberty for any time, however short, without lawful excuse".