Watching the detectives

Claire Gilham seems very excited when we meet at her High Holborn offices. She doesn’t admit as much, but it is noticeable, and I don’t think it’s just the prospect of being quizzed by The Lawyer. There are 52 days to go before the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) goes operational on 1 April and there is masses to do. For Gilham, as co-deputy chair of the IPCC with former Liberty director John Wadham, it is a massive project and she says that she is thoroughly enjoying it, hence her excitement.

Gilham is bang in the centre of New Labour’s latest vision. The IPCC comprises a body of experts from all walks of civilian life coming together under one roof to ensure that the police, from the commissioner down to the novice on the beat, are properly brought to book if they mistreat, harangue, racially abuse, attack or injure anyone outside the force. Previously, this was the responsibility of the police.

The whole thing is, in a sense, a reminder of how long Tony Blair has been Prime Minister. It is partly because of events that happened during his term in office that the IPCC exists at all – events such as the bungled investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the police’s gunning down six years ago of unarmed James Ashley in Hastings, East Sussex.

The IPCC is an independent body, and although it is funded by the Government it has been given a free rein in determining how it conducts itself and in the guidance it gives to the police in relation to its investigations. This is where Gilham and the other IPCC lawyers come in. Her job is to work with an open mind with all the departments, unions and forces of the police in establishing these codes of conduct and guidelines.

Crucially, and unusually for a modern-day Government-funded entity, the IPCC’s tasks are not set against the backdrop of meeting targets for, say, punishing police, or fulfilling quotas of numbers of investigations to be completed per year. The IPCC is a reasonably liberated body, albeit one operating within the constraining framework of the legalistic and slightly bureaucratic minds of Gilham and her fellow lawyers.

The rooms where Gilham works, on the sixth floor of a massive office block in High Holborn, simply ooze modernity. The décor is colourful, and the reception has fancy light-green, peculiar-shaped seats, better suited for the lounge of a space ship. One visitor (possibly from the Police Federation, which is in constant meetings with the IPCC) comments: “Something to do with modern art these seats, aren’t they?”

Gilham, a perfectly affable interviewee albeit one who could probably handle herself, is perfectly suited to her role. She has seen and done a lot in her short 18 years of professional life.

From 1988 to 1998 she worked as head of legal at Cheshire County Council. Due to the nature of promotion in the public sector, she could easily have got lost in bureaucracy as a local government officer. Instead she decided to do something that matched her personality: ideas, lawyering, a dislike of excessive bureaucracy, and, to some extent – although she never says this in so many words – excitement in ensuring that justice is done.

She became a consultant lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at Salford University and soon after became chair of the Independent Review Panels. This was very similar to her current role. It involved determining the way investigations were carried out in Britain’s mental health services. She doubled this up with a similar role investigating patient deaths in prisons for the criminally insane.

The darkness of the lives she investigated does not seemed to have penetrated her. She is also not the clipboard and pen type, filling in boxes to see whether the police have fulfilled all standards. She realises that the IPCC will be a learning curve, that everything is not black and white, and that for it to work, the police’s own opinions have to be accounted for. “We have regular meetings with police forces and hear their concerns about the way the complaints system works in their area,” she says.

She says that one reason for this is that police who are under investigation often feel they are victims of a witchhunt, as if they are guilty before being proven so. “We have to be sure that just because an officer has used a racist word against a member of the public, he is, in fact, racist,” she explains.

She wants to allay the police’s fears in other areas too. She is considering how to handle concerns from police officers’ union the Police Federation that officers accused of offences made in so-called ‘informal’ sessions with investigators will not be used against them in any later formal sessions.

These informal sessions, akin to alternative dispute resolution in the civil law field, were an idea that Gilham helped to introduce at the IPCC. It is a way of speeding up investigations in a more relaxed and pleasant way. Gilham is also helping to draw up rules governing them.

The informal sessions are likely to be used in the least serious complaints against officers, although, like lots of things in the IPCC at present, it is up for discussion. These complaints will largely be dealt with by the police, although the IPCC may get involved on the peripheries and the public can appeal to it. A second level of very serious cases will be investigated jointly by the police and the IPCC, and a final level, comprised of priority cases, will be investigated solely by the IPCC.

Gilham has other ideas. “Up to now, [investigating officers] was just a case system. Once a case was finished there seemed to be no role for using that as a basis for improving the way complaints were handled in the force. In our case, through regular meetings with the police, we can look at trends and issues.”

For instance, Gilham wants to ensure that everyone, from refugees with poor English through to observers of alleged police brutality at peace marches, should be able to have their complaints investigated. If they are not, Gilham wants to know why not and then make sure they are heard. She admits this could be expensive, but she says that generally, money is being saved because IPCC investigations should take less time to complete than if the police do it themselves because of the independence of the new body.

As we speak, the IPCC is busy recruiting scores of investigators. Gilham says that most of the senior end will be former detectives. Surely this could create conflicts of interest. She says not, and in any case, she says that there is no alternative. “The only people who have experience of dealing with the dead is the police,” she starkly explains. Gilham had a say in the recruitment process and, because of her background in investigating deaths among the criminally ill, she is probably the best-placed person at the IPCC to do so.

Gilham constantly refers to “rules”, “standards”, “objectives” and “procedures”. She knows their value, but does not seem to be using them for rules’ sake or to fulfil some Government tick box. She also does not dodge the more controversial issues that come with her job. Ultimately, although the IPCC will carry out the investigations, it will be police tribunals that decide on an officer’s guilt. She admits that this troubles her, but says that efforts are underway to ensure a lay person joins the tribunals.

This is the crucial issue, and the test of the IPCC’s success. Hopefully, Gilham’s excitement level will still be high in a year’s time.
Claire Gilham