Letter: Disturbing words from Condon

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The Independent Online
Sir: The disturbing reported comments of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner ('Met chief attacks lawyers', 2 August), on the subject of civil damages against his force, call for response.

He complains that he paid out more than pounds 1.7m last year in 'threatened' or 'settled' actions. In fact, as he knows, he does so on a carefully calculated basis and in his own interests. He has a large specialist legal department advising him as to the prospects of success in each case and of the likely award of damages at trial. Settling cases protects his force from the damaging rejection of police officers' evidence at trial and even more adverse publicity. Settlements in 'threatened' actions, before the plaintiff even formulates his claim, can only reflect advice that police conduct has been indefensible.

The sums offered are almost always a fraction of the potential damages figure, and are often accepted by plaintiffs because they are not able to face the ordeal and uncertainties of going to trial. If Mr Condon thinks that he can save money and reduce damage to the reputation of his force by fighting more cases to trial, he will be taking the grave risk of defying his own professional advisers.

Perhaps the most disturbing complaint is that there are some people manipulating the legal aid system, and that there are solicitors specialising in 'police' litigation. Serious professional duties are imposed upon lawyers acting for plaintiffs under legal aid. They have to justify every step taken in civil litigation to the legal aid authorities and are frequently obliged to reject claims because they have insufficient prospects of success. Lawyers experienced in this field, mirroring those at his disposal, are better able to carry out these important duties and save much public expense. The very high overall success rate of such actions reflects the responsibility of plaintiffs' lawyers in this field.

Instead of mounting unfounded attacks upon lawyers successfully carrying out their duties, Mr Condon should concentrate upon his own. Perhaps he should explain what he has done about the officers whose misconduct has caused him to pay out these very large amounts of money. How many of the officers named in these many hundreds of actions have been disciplined, or even re-allocated to less sensitive duties? As Bernard Levin memorably asked several years ago, in relation to one such award of damages: 'Who will protect us from the bullies in blue?'

Yours faithfully,

PATRICK O'CONNOR

London, EC4

2 August

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