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Suing the Police

If you have been arrested and released without charge you may be able to sue the police for assault and unlawful imprisonment. When the police arrest you they must have reasonable grounds to suspect you of an offence. Even if you're released without charge the police may still have had good reason to suspect you - it will depend on the circumstances. Conversely you may be convicted of an offence and still be able to sue for wrongful arrest. For example you may be convicted of affray but the arrest was unlawful, because affray is not an arrestable offence.

You can sometimes sue the police even if you haven't been arrested. If the police threaten to arrest you unlawfully (for example, under an unlawful Section 14 notice) then they have assaulted you, as assault is defined at common law as any act that puts someone in anticipation of a battery. If the police touch you they could also be liable for battery. And you can now sue the police for breach of Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, for acting in a way which is incompatible with your Convention rights.

This could be, for example, where they try to move you for obstructing the highway when leafleting outside a fur shop - as they would be disregarding your right to freedom of expression (Art. 10, ECHR). If you can get legal aid contact us for good solicitors to use. If you can't, they may do it for free on a "no win no fee".

Otherwise, use the small claims procedure in your local County Court, which can be used for claims of up to £5,000 and is free to those on Income Support or JSA. It's a user friendly procedure designed for ordinary people not lawyers, and you don't have to pay costs even if you lose. Your local courts will have leaflets explaining delete 'how' the procedure. When suing the police, you would usually sue the chief constable of the police force in question.

It is your right to sue, and it is important that it is exercised. If you do not sue, it sends a message to the police that they can get away with breaking the law and oppressing you. If everyone sued then the police would be a lot more careful before arresting activists indiscriminately, Suing may take several years, and you will need to fight your corner at times. However, by doing so you will no only be gaining a considerable sum of money but helping other activists in the long run.

Recommended solicitors to use for suing the police are:

See also the note on the Human Rights Act.

Complaints against the Police

If you are in a position where you can not sue the police, whether unwilling to take the time required or unable to afford it, you can still take action against their unlawful or repressive behaviour.

This will not cost you very much, and in the past it has led to police officers known to have a bias or to be trouble makers being removed from policing animal rights events such as hunt sabs or demos.

It is not as satisfying as suing, but it is something that most police officers are nervous about as it will go on their record and thus harm their promotion chances. It will also affects police targets, as complaint statistics have to form part of their annual reports. In one case, Kent police received so many complaints over their actions while attending hunt sabs that they had to employ extra officers to deal with the case load and in the end ceased their oppressive regime the following year to avoid generating the same number of complaints.

Every protestor has seen how the police can oppress, misbehave and act illegally. They only do so because they think they can get away with it. As every complaint made has to be investigated, and the police absolutely hate being dragged up in front of internal inquiries, it is a very effective tool in preventing your rights from being breached again. Do not expect that your complaint will always be upheld, but always remember, every complaint does have an effect, and will make them think twice next time.

To make a complaint you need to include the following details:

Police officers are expected to conform to a set of standards laid out in the Police Code of Conduct (we have a copy here). Breach of the code can be a serious disciplinary matter. So, even if the police have not broken any laws, their behaviour may still amount to a breach of the code of conduct and that is grounds for a complaint in itself. It is good to quote the relevant articles from the code of conduct when putting in your complaint. Relevant sections for activists are going to be "fairness and impartiality", "politeness and tolerance" and "use of force and abuse of authority".

Put your complaint in writing to:
Independent Police Complaints Commission
90 High Holborn,

Tel: 020 7166 3000
Fax: 020 7404 0430
Email: (note, complaints made by email are not currently accepted; it must be done in writing)

This organisation (IPCC) replaces the Police Complaints Authority. You should also send it to the headquarters of the police authority for whom the officers serve, as it is they who will carry out the initial investigations into the complaint.

This article is for information purposes only; its aim is to let people to know their full rights under UK law. Nothing on these pages is absolute as the law is always changing; if in doubt contact a trusted solicitor for further advice. We do not encourage you to break the law.

Please feel free to copy and distribute these articles to fellow activists, but do not alter the text in any way. These articles are anti-copyright for non-commercial purposes. Please visit for the latest version of our articles and to learn about the freeBEAGLES Ethical Open Document License under which this document is distributed.

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© Copyright freeB.E.A.G.L.E.S.; last updated: April 2004