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Law Report: Exemplary damages against police in 'bag torture' case: Treadaway v Chief Constable of West Midlands. Queen's Bench Division (Mr Justice McKinnon), 28 July 1994

In a case where police officers acted with contempt for the rule of law and had 'tortured' the plaintiff to obtain a confession when questioning him at a police station, substantial exemplary damages had to be awarded.

Mr Justice McKinnon awarded damages totalling pounds 50,000 to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff, who had a history of criminal convictions, alleged that he was seriously assaulted by five officers of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad and sued for compensatory damages for assault and for exemplary damages for oppressive, arbitrary or unconstitutional action by the police officers concerned. The plaintiff alleged that while he was being interviewed by the officers, they had tried to extract a confession by suffocating him with bags over his head.

Patrick O'Connor QC and Tim Owen (BM Birnberg & Co) for the plaintiff; Jeremy Gompertz QC and Geraint Norris (West Midland Policy Authority) for the chief constable.

MR JUSTICE MCKINNON said that although the plaintiff had been regarded with considerable circumspection having regard to his history of criminal convictions and his admissions that he was a practised liar, he was an unpractised witness, did not prevaricate, faced up to the discrepancies in his account, which had a 'core consistency'.

The medical evidence of a combination of injuries, such as injuries to the wrist, petechial haemorrhages to the shoulder and sternum, minor abrasions inside the mouth, was not explained by the police account but was entirely consistent with the plaintiff's account.

His Lordship was satisfied on a high degree of probability that the plaintiff was assaulted by five police officers of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. His Lordship believed the plaintiff, fully appreciating that credibility was the sole issue in the case. His Lordship did not believe the evidence of the police officers who were present at the plaintiff's interview and played various parts in the serious assaults on the plaintiff.

For their tortious and criminal acts, there was no dispute that the chief constable was vicariously responsible.

The exemplary damages to be awarded were bound to be substantial so as to mark such serious misconduct by police officers. The police officers had, by their conduct in denying the assaults on the plaintff, prolonged the plaintiff's ordeal.

The court should not reduce the exemplary damages because the plaintiff was a man with serious criminal convictions. That was because the plaintiff, with all his faults, had been placed in a situation where he was entitled to expect that he would be given the protection of the law. That, he was not given.

What happened to him amounted to nothing less than torture. That was unacceptable everywhere.

The police officers concerned had shown contempt for the plaintiff and thus for the rule of law.

Compensatory damages for his injuries of pounds 2,500 would be awarded. Aggravated damages of pounds 7,500 were awarded. As to exemplary damages, this was a very serious abuse of authority by the police.

Within reasonable bounds, while remembering just how oppressive, cynical and unacceptable was the treatment meted out to the plaintiff, the sum of pounds 40,000 by way of exemplary damages would be awarded.