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23 October 2000

Don’t pay the Lawrences so much money

The Met is wrong to give £320,000 for bungling a murder investigation

By Richard Colbey

The claim by Stephen Lawrence’s parents for compensation from the Metropolitan Police has finally been settled, it is reported, for £320,000, rather than the £500,000 originally claimed. Yet the popular wisdom that the Lawrences were entitled to any substantial sum – let alone this much – suggests that, on this tragic and emotive matter, people have lost touch with legal and economic reality.

It is hard to see any legal basis on which the Met could be required to pay compensation. The police bungle investigations all the time, usually through incompetence, occasionally for more sinister reasons. Periodically, this leads to litigation. Doreen Hill, whose daughter Jacqueline was the Yorkshire Ripper’s 13th and final victim, argued, and with considerable force, that the ineptitude of the West Yorkshire Police had left Peter Sutcliffe at large for five years. Her claim for compensation, however, was roundly dismissed by the Court of Appeal and House of Lords, on the basis that the police do not owe a duty of care to unknown members of the public in carrying out investigations.

Even where the likely victim of their negligence is identifiable, the same principle applies. In 1986, thieves raided Socrates Alexandrou’s shop in Birkenhead after police failed to respond to a burglar alarm. In 1987, London police failed to respond to complaints that a deranged teacher had been harassing a former pupil, Ahmet Osman. The teacher then went to the Osmans’ house with a gun, seriously injured the boy and killed his father. Osman and Alexandrou had their claims dismissed by the Court of Appeal. The judges reasoned that, if such cases were allowed to proceed against the police, fear of liability would hamper operational decision-making.

Lawyers for the Met’ and the Lawrences must be aware that both these decisions make the Lawrences’ claim legally hopeless. Large organisations do sometimes buy off weak, “nuisance-value” claims that would be expensive to defend or might lead to adverse publicity. But not to the tune of £320,000. The Met has no right to pay that much out of public money, simply to spare itself further embarrassment.

One is reluctant to accuse the Lawrences of greed. They have suffered a dreadful loss, and then the further insult of seeing a deplorably inept investigation into their son’s murder. But that insult cannot possibly come close to inflicting on them the pain that Stephen’s death did initially. The police have not been blamed for that, only for causing the subsequent hurt feelings.

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To put the Lawrences’ claims into context, the parents of a child aged over 18 who dies in an accident will receive little more compensation than the funeral expenses. A violent death entitles the claimant to a similar payment from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. There are compelling arguments that such a payment is inadequate for any grieving parent, but that is not the thrust of the Lawrences’ argument.

In May, Jan Pasalbessi, an Indonesian man, was murdered in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack in south Wales; his daughter was also injured. The family will receive compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, based largely on the extent to which they have suffered financial loss because of no longer being able to count on Pasalbessi’s earning capacity. That will be determined according to long-established legal principles.

It is only because we have all heard of Stephen Lawrence, while no media bandwagon has followed Jan Pasalbessi’s killing, that legal reality pertains in one case but not the other.

The intellectual dishonesty that led to a payment to the Lawrences is mirrored by the virtual deification of their solicitor, Imran Khan, and their barrister, Michael Mansfield QC. One of the matters that presumably causes the Lawrences distress is that the men they believe committed the murder can now never be tried. This is because in 1994, their legal team launched a private prosecution. That prosecution failed in 1996 because there was not sufficient evidence. Howard Youngerwood, the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer who dealt with the case, explained to the Lawrences and their lawyers why the CPS had decided not to prosecute. He said the possibility of doing so in the future should be kept open in case new evidence arose. For this wise counsel, he was branded a racist.

It is indeed possible that matters which have subsequently emerged might now enable a prosecution to succeed, had the earlier one not made it impossible. This private prosecution served the Lawrences little better than the initial police investigation. So why should only the police pay the price?

The treatment of Youngerwood shows the ease with which, in the Lawrence case, shouts of “Establishment racist conspiracy” are substituted for rational argument. Even right-wing commentators have been reluctant to point to the obvious holes in their assertions. After the Macpherson inquiry report was published, commentators urged the incumbent commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, to resign because of the findings that there was institutional racism in the Met. Yet even if the police investigation into the killing was so bad that a ceremonial sword-falling ceremony were needed, there was no logical basis for him to do it.

Condon was not the Commissioner of the Met at the time of the killing. Perhaps as much motivated by the demands of public relations as by real concern, he had been assiduous in appearing to try to stamp out racism in the force. It may be argued that Condon was not very effective. So far, his successor has not proved any better.

The writer is a barrister