Leading Article: A vital step towards justice and accountability

It is a welcome decision in the context of a police force that sometimes seems to be above the law

Justice has moved a step closer for the family of Ian Tomlinson. The decision was taken yesterday to charge PC Simon Harwood of the Metropolitan Police with the manslaughter of the newspaper seller in April 2009. This much we know about the Tomlinson case. During public protests in the City of London two years ago, Mr Tomlinson was walking slowly away from PC Harwood and a line of other officers with his hands in his pockets. PC Harwood struck Mr Tomlinson with his baton then shoved him hard to the ground. Mr Tomlinson got up, walked a short distance, then collapsed and died.

But what caused his death? The pathologist called in by the coroner, Dr Freddy Patel, found that Mr Tomlinson had died of a heart attack. But two other pathologists, Dr Nat Carry and Dr Kenneth Shorrock, who subsequently examined the body, found that the cause of death was internal bleeding. This makes all the difference in the world as far as the law is concerned. Dr Patel's findings suggest death by natural causes. The conclusions of Dr Carry and Dr Shorrock, on the other hand, imply that Mr Tomlinson's death may have had other causes.

Last year, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced that the conflicting medical verdicts meant there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution of PC Harwood. But earlier this month an inquest jury found that Mr Tomlinson died as a result of internal bleeding of the abdomen and that PC Harwood has used "excessive and unreasonable force" when he struck the newspaper seller. This decisive verdict presented Mr Starmer with a significant test, and he did the right thing by reversing his original decision and ordering PC Harwood to be put on trial.

This was the correct course of action based on the available evidence. But it is also a welcome decision in the context of a police force that sometimes seems to be above the law. The behaviour of the Metropolitan Police throughout this affair has been highly suspect. The force initially denied that Mr Tomlinson had been struck by one of its officers. Only when a video emerged providing incontrovertible proof that this is what took place did it admit the truth.

The police watchdog's behaviour was just as disturbing. The Independent Police Complaints Commission did not launch an investigation until after the video emerged. And serious questions had already been raised about the competence of Dr Patel when the City of London coroner called on his services.

If this case had not gone to trial, public confidence in the accountability of the police under the law would have been disastrously undermined. We have been through such a disaster before. In 1979, a New Zealand-born teacher, Blair Peach, was killed at an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, west London. Documents released last year show that Mr Peach was almost certainly killed by a police officer, but no prosecution was brought because other officers refused to co-operate with the inquiry. The difference between the Peach and Tomlinson cases, of course, is that the latter was captured on video. Technology has changed the relationship between the police and the public at public demonstrations – and unquestionably for the better.

As Mr Starmer admitted yesterday, it is possible that the conflicting medical views on how Mr Tomlinson died will mean a conviction in this case is impossible. But what is important is less the eventual verdict than the fact of PC Harwood standing trial. That alone represents justice and accountability.

The sense of impunity that surrounds the police fractured yesterday. That is good for the public, and it will ultimately prove good for the police, too.