Whilst the Police Complaints Authority does provide an independent element, the actual investigation of complaints by police officers, often from the same force, can no longer claim widespread support. The increasing numbers of people who ignore the complaints system in favour of taking their cases through the civil courts is evidence of this dissatisfaction.
Civil actions against the police are preferred because the complainant is a real party to the process, legal aid is available to pay for representation by lawyers, the police are under a duty to disclose all the evidence and documents, and the issues are raised in a public trial where officers are asked to justify their decisions. What is also important is that in many cases the issues of fact and the awards of damages have to be resolved by juries. Of course civil actions increasingly often lead to payments of damages whereas complaints only lead to officers being disciplined.
Civil actions against the police do not of course provide an adequate remedy for those who are not poor enough to qualify for legal aid nor for those who were "only" subject to a minor assault or who were "only" unlawfully detained for a short period. Civil action is not therefore a substitute for a proper complaints system. Nevertheless any new system, apart from being independent, would have to ensure a full role for the complainant, proper disclosure and be open and transparent. We have a long way to go before the current complaints system meets these principles but the first steps need to be taken now.
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