Should police chiefs be liable for sexism?

The Lords will rule on whether a commissioner should carry the can for the actions of high-ranking officers. By Roger Pearson.

Allegations of sex discrimination in the Metropolitan Police are to come under legal scrutiny in the House of Lords.

The probe is scheduled in a battle by former policewoman Eileen Waters to prove that the capital's police discriminated against her. The case is one which raises important questions for all police chiefs.

Waters is to challenge a 1997 Appeal Court decision rejecting her appeal against a High Court dismissal of discrimination allegations.

She sought damages for alleged discrimination claiming, among other things, that the police failed to act on her complaints that she had been sexually assaulted by a police colleague.

Her claims were based on allegations that in 1987 a police constable with whom she had gone for a walk later raped her in her room.

She claimed she reported the matter to her superiors but that they took no action. She also complained that she was subsequently subjected to harassment, unfair treatment and victimisation by other members of the police force.

In reaching the decision to be challenged, the Appeal Court considered about 90 allegations of discrimination alleged to have taken place at three police stations over five years but ruled that she had failed to show there had been a planned or concerted agreement to harass her or drive her out of the police force.

They backed earlier rulings by the Employment Appeals Tribunal headed by Mr Justice Mummery in 1995 and by the High Court that she had not proved discrimination. They held that she had not shown that there had been a conspiracy against her. They also ruled that any such action would be doomed in the absence of foreseeability.

In the appeal now scheduled to be heard during the current legal term, the Law Lords are to be asked to decide whether the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police owes a personal duty of care to provide a safe place of work and system of work for his officers.

They will also be asked to rule on whether there is a tort of harassment and whether the police commissioner is vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of superior officers who fail to exercise their supervisory duties to protect an officer from harm from fellow officers.