Met chief calls for lawsuit costs reform

Britain's most senior police officer has appealed to Home Secretary Theresa May to help curb the number of lawsuits against his force, it emerged today.

In a letter obtained by The Guardian, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson complained about the cost and bureaucracy of civil cases brought by members of the public and of employment tribunals initiated by staff.

He also urged the introduction of a fee for requests for documents and data under the Freedom of Information Act, which is supposed to increase the transparency of public bodies.

The letter, apparently written and sent in June, little more than a month after Ms May took over at the Home Office, was marked "confidential".

In it, Sir Paul said that the legal costs of civil actions, which he said often concerned "technical" breaches rather than issues of wide public concern, were a drain on police resources.

"We believe there needs to be a radical shakeup of the system; currently for every pound paid out in compensation, up to £10 or sometimes more has to be paid out in legal costs to the claimants' lawyers," he said.

"One of the key aspects is that the average settlements are well under £10,000 and most under £5,000, in other words these are not major areas of police misconduct with long-lasting consequences but often technical breaches."

On employment tribunals, he wrote that staff were able to lodge "speculative" claims and then drop them after "considerable" resources have already been spent responding.

"We propose that a fee for issuing claims could be introduced and the grounds upon which costs can be made widened to meet these concerns," he said.

Turning to the Freedom of Information Act, the Commissioner encouraged the Home Secretary to "consider introducing a fee (as there is for Data Protection Act requests) to bring it into line with the Data Protection Act".

Sir Paul's intervention drew criticism from civil liberties campaigners.

James Welch, legal director of the civil rights group Liberty, told The Guardian: "The ability to challenge police misconduct in court is a vital constitutional safeguard against abuse of power.

"Under current rules, if you lose a case in the civil courts you can expect to be ordered to pay your successful opponent's legal costs. A service bound to uphold the rule of law should not attempt to carve out an exception for itself."

Paul McKeever, chief of the Police Federation of England and Wales which represents rank-and-file officers, challenged the idea that "speculative claims" were being lodged with employment tribunals.

"Going to an employment tribunal is the last resort people take after being frustrated by the system. Nobody wants to go to an employment tribunal - it's a horrible process to go through," he said.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information accused Sir Paul of trying to discourage requests for information to his force.

"The effect would be to shield the police from many of the requests they get," chairman Maurice Frankel said.

Scotland Yard was unavailable for comment, but a Home Office spokesman said: "The Home Secretary enjoys a good relationship with Sir Paul Stephenson.

"It is usual for him to write to her with his opinions and the Home Secretary always considers them carefully."

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