Our guide to the police complaints process
If you believe that a member of the police force has acted inappropriately or unlawfully you can use the police complaints process to seek redress.
All police officers and volunteers are required to comply with the following standards of professional behaviour:
- Honesty and Integrity - Police officers must be honest, act with integrity and must not compromise or abuse their position.
- Authority, Respect and Courtesy - Police officers must act with self-control and tolerance, treating members of the public and colleagues with respect and courtesy. Police officers must not abuse their powers or authority and must respect the rights of all individuals.
- Equality and Diversity - Police officers must act with fairness and impartiality. They must not discriminate unlawfully or unfairly.
- Use of Force - Police officers must only use force to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in all the circumstances.
- Orders and Instructions - Police officers can only give and carry out lawful orders and instructions. Police officers must abide by police regulations, force policies and lawful orders.
- Duties and Responsibilities - Police officers must be diligent in the exercise of their duties and responsibilities.
- Confidentiality - Police officers must treat information with respect and access or disclose it only in the proper course of police duties.
- Fitness for Duty - Police officers when on duty or presenting themselves for duty must be fit to carry out their responsibilities.
- Discreditable conduct - Police officers must behave in a manner which does not discredit the police service or undermine public confidence in it, whether on or off duty. Police officers must report any action taken against them for a criminal offence, any conditions imposed on them by a court or the receipt of any penalty notice.
- Challenging and Reporting Improper Conduct - Police officers must report, challenge or take action against the conduct of colleagues which has fallen below the Standards of Professional Behaviour.
Any failure of an officer or volunteer to meet these standards is grounds for a complaint and can lead to a finding of misconduct or gross misconduct and result in disciplinary action against the officer/s involved. The reporting and investigation of such failures may also identify areas of organisational learning or training gaps which can then be addressed by the force.
Lodging the complaint
Lodging the complaint can be done in person at a police station, over the phone or online to the IPCC: www.ipcc.gov.uk/complaints. The IPCC refer most complaints back to the local force for investigation and will generally only investigate the most serious complaints themselves. However, the IPCC maintain a record of all complaints made to them. Therefore it is preferable to lodge your complaint with the IPCC so there can be no doubt that they have been made aware of it.
Complaints must always be lodged within 12 months of the incident occurring. The 12 month deadline is strictly enforced and will only be extended in exceptional circumstances. In any event, it is generally best to lodge a complaint as soon as possible so that evidence and investigative opportunities are not lost.
Once your complaint has been lodged it will be formally recorded and the mode of investigation decided. It is very important to ensure that your complaint is accurately and completely recorded so that nothing is missed from the investigation.
The local force may suggest resolving your complaint by way of 'local resolution'. This is an informal process which cannot result in a finding of misconduct or disciplinary action against the officers involved. It should only be used for quite trivial, low level matters. The decision to use local resolution can be used without the complainant's consent and there is no right of appeal against such a decision. The only way of challenging this is by way of Judicial Review. Any Judicial Review must be brought promptly and in any event within three months of the decision.
Where the complaint is one alleging serious corruption, a serious assault, criminal conduct or death or serious injury, the complaint must be referred to the IPCC who may supervise or manage the investigation, or they may decide to conduct a completely independent investigation themselves. The IPCC only actually get involved in a small proportion of the total number of police complaints and only the most serious.
Most complaints that are not dealt with by way of local resolution will be investigated by the local force. This is known as a 'local investigation'. The complaint will usually be allocated to an investigating officer who should be identified to you at the outset of the complaint investigation. The investigating officer may wish to meet with you and take a statement. It may be preferable to prepare a statement in advance to ensure that it contains everything you wish to say. The investigating officer should also put the officers concerned on notice of the complaint, take statements from them and consider any other relevant evidence.
If at any stage of the complaint investigation it appears to the investigating officer that there has been criminal conduct on the part of an officer, the matter should be referred to the CPS. It also remains open to the investigating officer to refer the matter back to the IPCC if it appears to be more serious than initially thought.
The outcome of the investigation
At the conclusion of their investigation the investigating officer will produce a report detailing the findings of their investigation and confirming whether there is a case to answer for misconduct, gross misconduct or unsatisfactory performance. They will then make recommendations as to how to address the issues identified.
Where misconduct or gross misconduct is found there should be a misconduct meeting or hearing which can result in a warning, disciplinary action or even dismissal depending on the seriousness of the case. However, sometimes the appropriate authority may only impose management advice or training, or they may decide that no action is required at all.
Depending on the level of investigation, you may have a right to appeal against the outcome of the investigation. You should be advised of any appeal right when you are notified of the outcome. The IPCC website contains information about possible grounds of appeal and the appeals process: https://www.ipcc.gov.uk/appeals. You may also attend any misconduct meeting or hearing involving the officers in question. You may also be asked to give evidence.
Unfortunately the vast majority of police complaints are not upheld. This will probably not come as a surprise given that most complaints are investigated by the local force. The complaints process can also take a very long time. Many complainants find the process to be lengthy, stressful and frustrating.
However, the police complaints process is the most direct route to having an officer disciplined or prosecuted for criminal conduct. It can also be the most effective means of preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future by identifying training needs and organisational learning. Lodging a complaint will also place your grievance on record which will be included in complaint statistics. It will also appear on the officer's disciplinary record. Therefore, even if your complaint is not upheld, it may provide evidence of a pattern of behaviour which triggers further investigation into the officer's conduct. If nothing else, making a complaint gives a clear message that misconduct by the police will not be tolerated.
It is important to bear in mind that the complaints process will not result in an award of compensation. For compensation you will need to make a civil claim against the police. It is not necessary to make a complaint before pursuing a claim but the complaint investigation may unearth valuable evidence in support of a potential civil claim. If you wish to pursue a civil claim you should obtain legal advice at the earliest opportunity as there are strict deadlines ('limitation dates') that must be complied with.
Our specialist solicitors within the Civil Liberties and Police Misconduct Team have extensive experience of representing clients in both complaints and civil claims against the police. If you are seeking advice on making a complaint or claim, please feel free contact us for an initial, free discussion. Our solicitors can be contacted on 0207 632 4300.