Litigation Litigator's View 23/04/96

A recent decision in the Court of Appeal provides helpful guidance to police officers faced with disruptive trespassers where a breach of the peace has not yet occurred but is anticipated.

In Nigel Watts v Commissioner of Police for the City of London (unreported), the plaintiff, well known following the celebrated libel action brought against him and Count Nikolai Tolstoy by Lord Aldington, sued the police for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment following his arrest at a company shareholders' extraordinary general meeting.

A police officer called by the company was informed of the plaintiff's expulsion from the meeting. The plaintiff refused to leave the premises and indicated that he would resist any attempt at forcible removal.

The question at issue was whether the police officer was entitled to anticipate violence in the course of the plaintiff's removal from the premises and whether this was sufficient to arrest the plaintiff for an anticipated breach of the peace.

Following R v Howell (1992) 1 QB 416, the Court of Appeal held that there were reasonable grounds for the arresting police officer to apprehend a breach of the peace because on the facts known to the police officer it was apparent that violence was likely to ensue if the plaintiff was removed by force.

The judgment serves to assist the police in handling protests by members of the public in circumstances in which no actual breach of the peace has occurred but one is imminent.

The Court of Appeal indicated that a common-sense approach to the situation must be adopted and recognised that police officers frequently have to make snap decisions in difficult circumstances based on their perception of the likely outcome of a disturbance.

The case also served to highlight the increasingly anachronistic role of the jury in trials for wrongful arrest.

In such cases the jury's role is limited to resolving disputed questions of fact and in this particular case the Court of Appeal took the view that there were no disputed facts that required a decision of the jury. Effectively, therefore, the jury's role was quite superfluous.