PSNI decision to discipline officers in wreath-laying controversy was unlawful

PSNI decision to discipline officers in wreath-laying controversy was unlawful

A PSNI decision to discipline two junior officers following a controversial arrest at a wreath-laying event during the pandemic was unlawful, Northern Ireland’s High Court has ruled.

Mr Justice Scoffield said he was persuaded that the decision was taken because of a fear, “whether real or perceived”, that not doing so would mean “republican support for policing would be withdrawn”, and “to reach a decision on that basis was in my view unlawful”.

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland brought the judicial review proceedings on behalf of two probationary constables who were involved in the policing of the commemorative event on Belfast’s Ormeau Road on 5 February 2021.

The event, which was held while public gatherings were restricted under pandemic rules, marked the 29th anniversary of the 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers’ shooting, in which loyalist paramilitaries killed five people and injured nine others.

Shortly after the event had finished and most of the participants had left, a man who was both a bereaved relative and a survivor of the 1992 attack was arrested on suspicion of disorderly behaviour. He was later released without charge.

News of the arrest quickly spread on social media and “generated a political storm which was disproportionate to the events on the ground”, Mr Justice Scoffield said.

The PSNI subsequently announced that the probationary constable who made the arrest would be suspended and one of his colleagues would be re-positioned.

This decision was later reversed following an internal review. However, the Police Federation proceeded to take legal action on behalf of the two officers.

Mr Justice Scoffield quashed the decision made to suspend the first applicant and the decision to re-position the second applicant.

“Although the practical effect of those decisions has dissipated, given that they have previously been ‘lifted’ by the respondent upon review, I consider the applicants are entitled to a form of relief which removes those decisions from their records as a matter of law,” the judge said.

Ronan Lavery KC and Richard Smyth, instructed by Michael May of Edwards & Co Solicitors, appeared for the Police Federation. Brett Lockhart KC and Philip Henry, instructed by the Crown Solicitors’ Office, appeared for the PSNI.

Commenting on the outcome, Liam Kelly, chair of the Police Federation, said: “This is clear vindication of the position we adopted. It was our clear view that the initial actions taken by PSNI against both officers were high-handed, unwarranted and excessive.

“There was a headlong rush by the chief constable to apologise for what took place when the officers, in fact, were simply doing their duty by enforcing Covid regulations. They’d received the all-clear to intervene in the gathering, but yet they were the only two singled out for disciplinary measures.”

He added: “The Federation had no hesitation in taking this judicial review. It was the correct action to take to defend these two officers who, through no fault of their own, found themselves bearing the brunt of an over-zealous disciplinary process that left their careers on hold.

“Today, an injustice has been corrected and the men and women I represent are delighted at the outcome.”

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