Police Law Blog European Decisions Statutory Materials

Public misconduct hearings

Public hearings in police misconduct hearings are new. As a result, panel chairs are just working their way around what is required and when to exclude the public. The bar for excluding members of the public and not naming officers is very high – as made clear by Solicitors Regulation Authority v Spector [2016] EWHC 37 (Admin). It concerns solicitors but the principles are transferable (with some key caveats, which I have not gone into here). The result is that there will be a strong presumption that police misconduct hearings be heard in public, including permitting all members of the public and the naming of all persons involved. A panel chair does have a power to restrict the public elements of a hearing but only in exceptional circumstances.

The relevant case law goes back to Scott v Scott [1913] AC 417 from which a number of other highly relevant authorities flow. There is not space in a short blog post go through them all but Spector rehearses at least some of them.

At a glance, the key points from the case are these:

  • Open justice is a fundamental principle. The public should be free to attend court proceedings and the proceedings should be freely reportable: paragraphs 19-20.
  • Free reporting includes being able to identify the persons involved, whether as parties or witnesses: paragraph 21.
  • A court’s restricting the public elements of a hearing is permitted only where necessary to advance the administration of justice. Nonetheless, the starting point is full openness and it is only if an exception is required in the interest of justice that some limitation is justified.
  • Such a decision is a matter of judgment between competing demands, not the exercise of a discretion as to one of a number of equally valid options.

Note, this is a difficult exercise in police hearings where panel chairs have no power to order reporting restrictions pursuant to Contempt of Court Act 1981 – as recognised at paragraph 27(v). Where it is considered necessary for an officer’s name to be withheld, the police misconduct hearing chair may have limited powers to restrict its onward publication if mentioned by accident.