Much ado about nothing?

An employment dispute that began in a glass fronted office block close to the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, was, eventually, played out in the hallowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand eleven months later.

It was no ordinary job, however, and the offices were those shared by the South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and its Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). The Chief Constable of the beleaguered force was David Crompton and he was suspended from duty, by the PCC, Dr Alan Billings, on the afternoon of 27th April, 2016.

crompton-and-billings
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, endorses his chief constable, David Crompton, within minutes of being elected to office in October, 2013.

Crompton ultimately resigned on 29th September, 2016 at the end of a process empowered by section 38 of the Police and Social Responsibility Act, 2011 (the Act).

At the time of his suspension, Crompton had already set his date for retirement from the force – which was planned to be 30th November, 2016.

A rolled-up permission and substantive judicial review hearing opened on 28th March, 2017 before Lady Justice Sharp and Mr Justice Garnham. David Crompton is the Claimant, the PCC, Dr Alan Billings, is Defendant and there are two interested parties: Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMCIC), Sir Thomas Winsor, and the Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel for South Yorkshire (PCP).

Dr Billings was present throughout the hearing, as was Sir Thomas and David Crompton. The latter was accompanied by his wife and daughter, together with retired Lincolnshire Police chief constable, Neil Rhodes, who was there in his capacity as Chief Police Officers Staff Association (CPOSA) ‘friend’. CPOSA are funding the claim through a contributory insurance scheme.

Rhodes is no stranger to these type of proceedings and successfully overturned a controversial suspension by the then Lincolnshire PCC, Alan Hardwick, in 2013.

Submissions were heard, for most of the first day of the hearing, from counsel for the claimant and HMCIC (Hugh Davies QC and Clive Sheldon QC respectively) which amounted to much the same thing: The decision of the PCC was taken in haste, not properly thought through, was defective in process, failed to apply due weight to HMCIC’s findings and undertaken with a political, rather than a policing, agenda.

Further, the PCC chose to ignore the recommendation of HMCIC which, it was advanced, on his behalf, a considered, objective and expert review of the section 38 process that the PCC had set in train.

As such, the decision by the PCC to, effectively, dismiss the chief constable was born of ‘political imperative rather than objectivity’, ‘disproportionate‘ and ‘irrational’. He had also taken account of ‘irrelevant considerations‘ when later justifying the decision. It was further argued that the decision under challenge infringed on David Crompton’s Article 8 convention rights as it impacted on his family and future employability. Mr Davies had earlier described him as ‘a highly effective chief constable‘.

There were no allegations made by the PCC, against his chief constable, of breaches of Standards of Professional Behaviour which apply to all police officers.

A declaration by the court that the actions of the PCC were unlawful is sought by the claimant. Which, it is said, would go some way to restoring his ‘damaged reputation‘ [1].

In the submission of Mr Sheldon, the events that led to the suspension centred on the jury determinations at the new Hillsborough inquests – and two SYP press releases that followed. The second press release included the words ‘other contributory factors‘ as causes of blame for the stadium disaster. Much attention is focused on the meaning and intent behind those words. He said, with some force, that accountability – as called for by Andy Burnham – did not necessarily mean that ‘heads should roll‘.

When asked (not for the first time) by Lady Justice Sharp where – with a wide discretion of decision making – the boundaries were, Mr Sheldon submitted that ‘the correct test was the old-fashioned Wednesbury approach on reasonableness‘. There had, he said, been no damage to effectiveness and efficiency of the force as a result of the chief constable’s leadership, and common law recognises that the Wednesbury test is dependent in each case on the facts. Mr Sheldon also stated, with some emphasis, that ‘There was no loss of public confidence in South Yorkshire Police‘.

Although not a party to proceedings, the name of Andy Burnham, MP and Shadow Home Secretary, was mentioned more than any other by counsel. He had called for accountability from SYP following the findings of the new Hillsborough inquests. According to counsel, the chief constable was the main target of criticism. The significance of a telephone call from a male bereaved family member, and prominent Hillsborough campaigner, to Dr Billings, just ten minutes before the PCC suspended his chief constable, was also raised in court.

The advocate for the PCP, Adrian Phillips, made brief submissions to the effect that the Panel saw their role as peripheral to these proceedings, they were neutral on its outcome and, accordingly, their decision should not fall for scrutiny by this court. He also, helpfully, explained to the court the statutory composition of a scrutiny panel and how it came to be, in an area such as South Yorkshire, that the Labour Party would be almost entirely dominant. He rejected the proposition, advanced by the claimant, that the Panel’s decision was born of political bias.

Jonathan Swift QC spoke eloquently, and persuasively, on behalf the PCC. The main thrust of his submissions, which took up almost the entirety of the second day of the hearing, was that the decision taken by Dr Billings (to conclude the section 38 process by asking CC Crompton to resign) was one that was reasonably open to him to make, by way of his statutory responsibilty to hold the chief constable to account under section 1 of the Act. He also maintained that all necessary processes had been correctly followed, including the required consultations with HMCIC and the PCP.

In rejecting one of the claimant’s (and HMCIC’s) main thrusts of argument, Mr Swift said that their was no statutory requirement for the PCC to give special weight to the views of Sir Thomas. He had considered those carefully and, in his discretion, had rejected those views.

He also invited the court to view the decision to suspend the chief constable through a wider lens, that brought into view an increasing discontent with the running of the police force in South Yorkshire. Particularly, in the months prior to the announcement of the Hillsborough inquest verdicts. Most notably, with the ongoing controversy of the handling of the aftermath of the Jay Report.

It was not, Mr Swift advanced, a spur of the moment decision, triggered by events in Parliament during an exchange between Mr Burnham and the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

There were also submissions from Mr Swift concerning both the timeliness and merits of three of the decisions challenged by the claimant:

(i) To suspend the chief constable

(ii) To reject the advice of HMCIC and continue with the section 38 process

(iii) To refer the matter to the PCP

In respect of the remaining decision – to finally ask the chief constable to resign –  Mr Swift agreed that permission for judicial review should be given to the claimant as the matter was, quite plainly, arguable. But, at the same time, invited the court to dismiss this fourth ground on its merits.

Mr Swift curtly also dismissed the alleged breach of Article 8 as being without merit.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Lady Justice Sharp told the court that judgment will be reserved on both the permission and substantive issues. The judgment is unlikely to be handed down before May 2017.

It is estimated that the two day hearing, with four legal teams representing the various parties, will end up costing either David Crompton’s insurers, or the South Yorkshire taxpayer, in the order of £150,000. And for what, the reader might legitimately ask? It seems, on the face of the submissions, that the claim was brought with two purposes in mind: To restore the reputation of David Crompton (there is no financial remedy either sought, or available, via this legal process) and to give HMCIC the final word in future section 38 processes as to whether a chief constable is dismissed, or not.

A preview of the court case, first published in January, 2017, in which the arguments of all parties is examined in some detail can be read on this website: ‘Bad on their merits‘ [2]

Page last updated Saturday 8th March, 2017 at 2055hrs

[1] Neil Wilby May 2015 – David Crompton: The South Yorkshire Years

 

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Copyright: Neil Wilby 2015-2017. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

‘Bad on their merits’

In April 2012, David Crompton stepped out of the shadow of Sir Norman Bettison and took up the post of chief constable of South Yorkshire Police (SYP). It is a matter of public record that, after being rejected in the first round of applications, and interviews, by the South Yorkshire Police Authority, he walked into the job because no-one else wanted it when the post was, subsequently, re-advertised. The only other officer shortlisted was Stuart Hyde, who took up a post with Cumbria Police instead.

David Crompton had been a controversial deputy chief of troubled West Yorkshire Police (WYP) since 2006 – and the much criticised Bettison resigned from that force in October, 2012 when faced with gross misconduct charges. Hyde, incidentally, was also a former WYP senior officer, having served there between 1997 and 2003. He later spent a lengthy period suspended whilst serving at Cumbria. An investigation report did find breaches of procedure, but Hyde was cleared of gross misconduct, misconduct and criminality shortly before retiring.

The Crompton police career had started in 1982 with another perpetually disgraced force, Greater Manchester Police, following the footsteps of his father, Sir Dan Crompton [1].

That career ended ignominously with his forced resignation from SYP on 29th September, 2016 – and marked the end of a turbulent period during which he was never far from heated debate.

Some of the low spots being his responses to the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in September 2012; the publication of the Jay Report in August 2014 into the extent and nature of decades of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham; the Cliff Richard home search debacle earlier in the same month and the appearance before a Parliamentary committee that followed; and his response to the IPCC’s June 2015 publication of their scoping report into criminality and misconduct during the infamous Battle of Orgreave.

But his nemesis was, finally, to be the verdicts of the jury at the new Hillsborough inquests nearly four years after the Panel’s findings. Notably, that the fans of Liverpool Football Club bore no responsibility for the death of 96 of their fellow supporters in the stadium disaster on 15th April, 1989. That flew in the face of Crompton’s own entrenched views on the matter, as revealed in emails sent by him, and subsequently published in the national press, following a freedom of information request made by fellow investigative journalist, Jonathan Corke.

The controversy over Crompton’s reaction to the inquests verdicts – and two press statements he made on successive days in April 2016 – is still rumbling on and is set to be played out in the hallowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) on London’s Strand. A two day hearing is listed for 28th and 29th March, 2017.

On 7th October, 2016 a judicial review (JR) permission application was filed at RCJ, on behalf of David Crompton, by Adam Chapman a former Treasury solicitor who is now a partner and Head of Public Law at Kingsley Napley (this firm also represented Bettison at the time of his resignation and for a period afterwards). The documents in support of the claim form run to over 1,000 pages and challenge four decisions made by South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Dr Alan Billings under Section 38 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, 2011 and, by which, the PCC first suspended his chief constable and then, ultimately, required him to resign.

crompton-and-billings
David Crompton with Dr Alan Billings following his election to PCC in October, 2014. Within minutes of being elected Billings was praising his chief constable in a BBC interview.     Photo credit: BBC

The statement of grounds has been drafted by well known police regulatory lawyer, Hugh Davies QC, and they take issue with the rationality and proportionality of the PCC’s decisions that, sequentially, led to the final sanction of, effectively, dismissal from his chief constable post. It also sets out four considerations that the claimant contends to be irrelevant in the decision making process: The conduct of the new Hillsborough inquests; the College of Policing led Peer Review conducted into the state of SYP after Crompton’s suspension, child sexual exploitation and the possible investigation into Orgreave.

Declaratory relief and/or a quashing order over the four decisions is sought, together with costs of the action.

It is set out that declaratory relief in this action would go some way to restoring the ‘grossly unfair’ destruction of the reputation of David Crompton, after what Davies says is some 30 years police service (it appears, by my reckoning, that he has over 34). The pleadings are, curiously, silent over the number of other high profile and well rehearsed failings that have, cumulatively, led to the demolition of his good standing as a police leader. They do advance the oblique proposition, however, that the PCC’s actions may have been influenced by ‘ill-informed public opinion‘.

The claim is heavily dependent on three documents produced by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, during the Section 38 process and in which the Police Commissioner is variously, and in parts, heavily criticised. They can all be viewed here: [2]

Indeed, joined as an Interested Party (IP) to the claim, Winsor has instructed Clive Sheldon QC and Christopher Knight to draft summary grounds in support of Crompton’s claim. These address the following areas: The wider importance to policing of the claim; the Section 38 process; the alleged irrationality and disproportionality of the PCC’s decision; and the rationale concerning the participation/role of HMCIC.

The submissions conclude by saying that the judicial review application should proceed to a substantive hearing, by way of permission from the Court, as it is ‘of real significance to David Crompton and of wider significance to the functioning of the police service of England and Wales’.

The sub-text is that Tom Winsor has taken exception to Dr Billings’ willingness to ignore HMIC’s input into the decision-making process that, ultimately, led to David Crompton’s removal. On any reasonable interpretation, Winsor would welcome a common law finding that would rein in the powers of PCC’s and, in effect, give him (or his HMCIC successor) the last word on whether a chief constable should be removed, or not.

But, that niggle aside, the submissions are meticulously set out and will, no doubt, be helpful not only to the court, but to those of us who are interested both in the deeper workings of police misconduct regulations and processes – and an important insight into the mindset of one of the nation’s most important ‘watchdogs’ who oversees just the one very specific part of them.

A robust defence to the claim has been mounted by the Police Commissioner and is being marshalled by Virginia Cooper, Litigation and Regulatory partner at Bevan Brittan (best known for her recovery of huge sums of public authority funds following the collapse of Icelandic banks). Summary grounds have been drafted by Jonathan Swift QC (assisted by experienced junior counsel, Joanne Clement).

It is, of course, entirely a matter for the court to assess the overall merits of the respective arguments put forward by the two main protagonists in this action, but one cannot fail to be attracted by the crispness of the presentation of summary grounds by counsel for the PCC: Particularly striking is the phrase employed in the curt dismissal of the claims concerning the first three of the decisions under challenge: ‘Bad on their merits‘. So much so, it has been adopted as the headline for this piece. The PCC’s position is that only the final decision (to formally call for resignation) falls for public law challenge. Counsel also maintain that ‘proportionality’ is not a recognised ground for judicial review.

There is also the moot point that the JR application concerning the first decision (to suspend Crompton) was filed outside of the three month time limit. Administrative courts are generally strict on this deadline and it may well be that part of the claim falls at the first hurdle. At first blush, the argument advanced on behalf of the claimant for late service does not strike the informed observer as particularly persuasive.

Apart from the arguments as to whether one, or four, decisions should be open to challenge by the claimant, the essential thrust of the PCC’s case is that the decision he made – and subsequently sanctioned by the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel (PCP) – was one fairly and properly open to him to make. Which is, of course, for those familiar with public law challenges, a routine public authority defence in judicial review proceedings.

Counsel deals with the HMCIC’s three contributions to the Section 38 process on the basis that he must take those into account, but is not in any way bound by them.

The evidence-free proposition by Tom Winsor that confidence in South Yorkshire Police had not been adversely affected by the second of Crompton’s two post-Hillsborough inquests press releases is also countered, firstly, by reference to local and regional feedback to the contrary. Secondly, by reference to pronouncements in Parliament by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was blistering in her condemnation of the second Crompton media offering.

may-as-crompton-suspended
Home Secretary Theresa May tears into South Yorkshire Police over their response to the verdicts delivered by the Hillsborough inquests jury                                                              Photo credit: BBC TV

Former Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, also features strongly in pleadings from claimant, defendant and HMCIC (as first interested party). It was Burnham who called, in Parliament, the day after the Hillsborough inquests verdict, for SYP heads to roll over the controversial manner in which the police case had been presented at the Warrington courtroom. Most particularly, by the defence team of the SYP match commanders David Duckenfield, Roger Greenwood and Roger Marshall, and in whose cause the traditional lines of blaming drunk, ticketless and non-compliant Liverpool football plans was relentlessly, and ferociously, pursued by their ‘attack dog’ counsel, John Beggs QC [3].

The other named interested party is the aforementioned PCP but the lawyer who acts for the Panel’s host authority – Rotherham Borough Council – has indicated that they will, for now, adopt only a ‘watching brief’. Mainly, in the interests of proportionality and constraining legal costs funded by the public purse.

Dermot Pearson, the Council’s senior lawyer has, however, in a measured response, invited the court to note that ‘the claimant is not asking the court to adjudicate on the lawfulness of the PCP  recommendation, or the conduct of its procedures’. He goes on to submit, on behalf of the PCP, that there is no good reason why the court should scrutinise the actions of the PCP – and gives an allegation of risk of bias by way of the political composition of the Panel (All Labour Party councillors save for one independent Member), short thrift.

The Chief Police Officers Staff Association (CPOSA) has been approached regarding the source of funding of David Crompton’s claim. It is estimated that the services of his lawyers has cost somewhere in the region of £20,000, so far. The costs to the PCC were noted at the time of filing the defence as over £17,000. HMIC’s costs are likely to be in the order of £7,000, so far, as there appears to be no instructed solicitor. These costs, to all parties, will rise sharply, of course, at the end of what is likely to be at least a two day hearing.

Judicial review applications are normally determined by a single judge on the papers.  If permission is refused at the first stage then the losing party can apply for an oral renewal, which takes place in open court, normally within a short time afterwards. If permission is given for judicial review a substantive hearing takes place. In this particular matter, the hearing will be presided over by two judges: Lady Justice Sharp and Mr Justice Garnham.

Whichever way the court’s decision falls, this is a controversy that will very likely run for some time yet. Fuelled to some degree by the findings of the same two judges at a hearing at the beginning of the month, at which an application from representatives of five bereaved Hillsborough families (Dorothy Griffiths, Barry Devonside, Becky Shah, Wendy Hamilton and Charlotte Hennessy) to be joined to the action, as interveners, was rejected. It was submitted, on their behalf by barrister, Kate Stone, that the families could assist the court by giving evidence concerning the way SYP evidence was presented at the new inquests.

A costs order was also made against the families, reported to be in the region of £28,000. Crowdfunding has been set up in an attempt to alleviate the burden [4].

Page last updated Monday 27th March, 2017 at 1015hrs

[1] Neil Wilby May 2015 – David Crompton: The South Yorkshire Years

[2] Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary 29th September, 2016 – Section 38 South Yorkshire Police

[3] The Guardian 26th April, 1989 – Hillsborough: Deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades

[4] Liverpool Echo 1st March 2017: Hillsborough familes told ‘YOU must pay ex-chief’s legal bill’

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Copyright: Neil Wilby 2015-2017. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.