Basildon (UK): Dale Farm Protestor Awarded Damages For Police Detention

A supporter of families at Dale Farm who was arrested during the forced eviction in 2011 has been awarded damages this week. Lu Smith, one of many arrested during the eviction, has settled her claim for damages against Essex Police. She was arrested at Dale Farm on 19 October 2011 while there as an activist protesting against the eviction of Travellers from the estate. Police said she was obstructing a bailiff – a minor offence for which the maximum penalty is a fine. Once Smith was already under arrest, and after she had been lifted and carried to a police vehicle, she was handcuffed despite already being in police custody and having shown no resistance. Smith was held in a police van and thereafter a larger police vehicle referred to as a “prison bus” for five hours. Her handcuffs remained on throughout the full period in the van and she was denied access to toilet facilities as well as water. Eventually, she and other protestors were forced to urinate on the floor of the van with no privacy and while in handcuffs.
After having a number of other difficulties in police detention, Smith was interviewed the following morning and then released on bail more than 25 hours after her arrest, and on stringent bail conditions which prevented her from entering the county of Essex. Having accepted a caution, Smith made a complaint to the police regarding the length and conditions of her detention. This was upheld in part, including a formal apology for the amount of time she was held on the “prison bus” before arriving at the police station, the length of time in handcuffs, and the denial of water and toilet facilities. Essex Police Professional Standards declined to treat these matters as misconduct but identified learning points for the officers involved. Following the complaint Smith brought a civil claim against Essex Police for assault, false imprisonment and breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. The police formally accepted that her detention was excessive in length and that she was denied toilet facilities; they argued that their policy of handcuffing all detainees regardless of individual factors was justified, but accepted the risk that a court could find otherwise. The claim was settled in Smith’s favour in early April 2013. Smith was represented by Natalie Sedacca, a solicitor in the HJA’s civil liberties department who specialises in actions against the police and protest-related claims, and Ruth Brander of Doughty Street Chambers. Natalie is acting for two other activists arrested at Dale Farm, while colleague Sasha Barton, also a civil liberties solicitor specialising in actions against public authorities, represents five other clients who were detained in similar circumstances to Smith and later prosecuted by Basildon Council when they declined to accept cautions. Ultimately all prosecutions were dropped. The experience of Smith and other Dale Farm protestors exposed flaws in the policing of the protests accompanying the evictions of October 2011, which are common to many large scale public order events. Regardless of whether an arrest is legitimate, police officers must be able to justify any further detention hour by hour. Although the maximum period that a detainee can be held before charge is usually 24 hours (extendable only by senior officers and / or a court) this does not mean that police will be entitled to keep all detainees in custody for such periods of time. Particularly in the context of policing demonstrations, where protestors are often arrested for relatively minor offences such as aggravated trespass and breaches of conditions that have been imposed on the route of demonstrations, police may struggle to justify such extended periods of detention. Further, the claim highlights the fact that once a person has been arrested, they must be taken to a police station “as soon as practicable.” Had this been followed in Smith’s case, she would have been taken directly to the police station rather than being left in a vehicle waiting for other detainees, and it is likely that she would have been released in a matter of hours rather than being held overnight for a minor, non-imprisonable offence. As such, the case is pertinent to policing of other large scale protests and public gatherings, where similar situations may arise in the context of mass arrests.
The Critical Mass bicycle ride at the Olympics opening ceremony in July 2012 saw 182 cyclists arrested for breaching conditions placed on the demonstration by police, of whom many were similarly held for long periods of time in police vans, some being denied access to toilet facilities. Once they had finally been booked into the police station, the vast majority were released on bail without even being interviewed formally interviewed. Hodge Jones & Allen along with other firms are representing many of the arrestees in civil claims against the police. We hope that the experience of Dale Farm protestors will serve to underline the fact that excessive detention and mistreatment in custody is no more acceptable in the context of public order policing than any other situation.
This article has been taken and slightly edited from a Hodge, Jones and Allen Press Release of whom we have great respect for.