Young woman wins damages after she was unjustifiably strip searched by male police officers
A 26 year old woman who was arrested and forcibly strip searched by male police officers after leaving a Chelsea night club in March 2011 has won £37,000 in damages. The Metropolitan Police Service has agreed to settle the claim two years after an IPCC investigation found the officers responsible should face misconduct proceedings for breaching the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) Codes of Practice.
The young woman was arrested by police officers after leaving a nightclub where she suspected her drink had been spiked. Police had been called to assist paramedics in dealing with a distressed female. Following her arrest, she was taken to Chelsea Police Station where CCTV showed that the strip search was performed in a cell by one female and four male officers. The woman was held down whilst every item of her clothing was forcibly removed, with her bra cut from the front of her body. She was then left naked in a cell with CCTV broadcasting images of what was taking place back to the custody desk.
This was all in breach of police rules which state that strip searches should be undertaken by members of the same sex only, that a strip search should not take place in a CCTV cell, that detainees should only be required to remove half their clothing at any one time and that they should be allowed to dress as soon as the search is completed.
The woman was extremely distressed and was confused about what had happened to her and why her clothes and underwear had been removed.
There was no record of the decision to conduct a strip search, or that it had happened at all, nor was any justification recorded. A male officer was heard to say, “Are we stripping this one?” to which the Custody Sergeant simply replied, “Yeah” without properly considering the necessity of the search.
In May 2013 an IPCC report into the incident recommended that the Custody Sergeant on duty should face a charge of gross misconduct over her failure to make any record of the strip search or to ensure it was carried out in accordance with the PACE codes of practice which outline the powers of the police. The IPCC recommended that five PCs should face misconduct proceedings for conducting the strip search in breach of the PACE codes and not questioning the instruction they were given. The IPCC concluded it was arguable that the multiple failures of the officers involved combined to inflict ‘degrading treatment’ on the woman, constituting a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Following the report, two of the officers involved were issued with formal written warnings and three faced management action. The custody sergeant has not faced gross misconduct proceedings as recommended by the IPCC and instead faced proceedings for misconduct only. The police have only recently, two years after the misconduct proceedings took place, informed the young woman of the outcome. Disappointingly the Custody Sergeant was merely told that if she worked as a custody officer in the future, she should familiarise herself with the rules which relate to custody procedure; and should ensure she seeks support from her line manager until she is confident that she can perform the role to the required standard. The conduct of the misconduct proceedings is currently the subject of a further complaint.
The young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “My drink had been spiked and the police should have helped me. Instead I remember being in a cell with strange men putting their hands on me and taking my clothes off. I believed I was being raped and remember screaming in fear. The experience has stayed with me and it has taken over four years for the Metropolitan Police Service to give me any acknowledgement that the way I was treated was unacceptable. I hope I can now put this behind me and move on with my life.”
Clair Hilder, a solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen, the civil liberties law firm that specialises in actions against state organisations, brought the claim against the Metropolitan Police Service for assault, breach of the Human Rights Act and misfeasance in public office. She says: “My client was subject to a humiliating ordeal at a time when she was clearly vulnerable and in need of medical attention. The officers involved acted in clear breach of professional regulations, taking an unjustified, callous and cavalier approach to the strip search. My client was scared and in shock, unaware of what was happening to her and why. The incident has caused her significant and lasting distress.
“These violations were totally unjustified and whilst we welcome settlement in this case, my client has as yet received no apology. She has been failed at every stage of her interaction with the Metropolitan Police Service. Misconduct proceedings have been prolonged and my client has not been kept properly updated on their progress or outcomes. This case is another example of the importance of the Human Rights Act in holding the police to account.”
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Notes to editors:
The Claimant in these proceedings has been granted an Anonymity Order by the Court.
Hodge Jones & Allen was founded in 1977 in Camden and has 200 staff based in Euston NW1. The firm practices personal injury, clinical negligence, civil liberties, family law, wills and probate, housing, dispute resolution, criminal defence and serious fraud.
The Civil Liberties team at Hodge Jones & Allen is one of the UK’s foremost teams in bringing actions against the police and state authorities. The team has a track record of holding authorities to account, including police forces, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Prison Service, Coroners, the Ministry of Defence, the Crown Prosecution Service, immigration detention centres and healthcare providers.