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  • Danny Shaw

A question of judgment



A mile away from the political storms at Westminster, away from the cameras and reporters, a legal squall has been blowing at the Royal Courts of Justice - involving the Metropolitan Police.


The force has brought judicial review proceedings to sack two police officers. Both have criminal convictions; both were dismissed by the Met after separate misconduct hearings; both were later reinstated by an independent appeals panel.


Scotland Yard no doubt believes it has strong grounds to contest the panel's decisions. But it is puzzling why it has gone to such lengths and unfortunate, to say the least, that the officers it is seeking to remove are women and from ethnic minority groups; one is Black, the other Asian. At a time when the culture of the Met is under review, when its treatment of women and ethnic minority communities has been brought into question by a series of incidents and scandals, it is not a good look - and will raise further concerns about decision-making.


One of the officers is Superintendent Robyn Williams (pictured) whose case I have written about before. In February 2018, she was sent, unsolicited, a 54-second video of a young girl being sexually abused by a man. At her Old Bailey trial the following year, Williams claimed she wasn't aware that the footage was on her smartphone. The jury didn't believe her; she was found guilty of possession of an indecent image, sentenced to 200 hours' unpaid work and ordered to register as a sex offender, although the judge recognised there had been no sexual motive. The conviction was upheld on appeal.


In March 2020, Williams was dismissed at a Met Police misconduct panel hearing headed by Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball (currently Acting Deputy Commissioner) who found that her actions amounted to "gross misconduct" which "threatened" public confidence and the reputation of the police service. In June 2021, the decision was overturned by the Police Appeals Tribunal (PAT). It was highly critical of Ball, saying her reasoning was "thin" and her conclusion "unreasonable". The Tribunal imposed a final written warning instead. The Superintendent, one of a very small number of senior Black officers in the UK, returned to the Met where she has been working ever since.


The second case has not made headlines in quite the same way, but Scotland Yard's determination to pursue it in the courts is equally, if not more, perplexing. It involves PC Asweina Gutty, who in 2018 pleaded guilty to assaulting her partner in a domestic setting. The sentencing judge said it was a "serious" case; the officer held the victim by the neck causing her to hit her head.


Gutty, who was then a detective, received a 12-month community order including 100 hours' unpaid work and was ordered to pay compensation and costs. She too was dismissed at a misconduct hearing by Ball, only for the decision to be quashed by the PAT - just as it was with Williams.


A fresh misconduct hearing took place to consider new evidence - but Gutty was sacked for a second time, on this occasion by Met Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe. Once again, the constable took her case to the PAT and once again she won, with a final written warning replacing the sanction of dismissal. She's now working in a police gangs unit but if the Met wins its legal challenge she will be fired from her job for the third time. That will surely be some kind of record.


At the High Court hearing this month, the cases of Gutty and Williams revolved around complex, technical arguments relating to the process by which the Police Appeals Tribunal reached its decisions. Lawyers for the Met said it was "perverse" to administer warnings to the officers and the "only possible outcome" should be dismissal.


Anne Studd QC told the court the way the PAT had dealt with Williams' appeal was flawed. “Because an officer can continue to serve does not mean that the public’s confidence is maintained by them doing so," she said. “It is the reputation of the whole profession that has to take precedence over the circumstances of the individual.”


Legal papers submitted to the Court from Studd and her colleague, Daniel Hobbs, shed more light on the Met's arguments. The pair said the PAT failed to properly assess or take account of the seriousness of Williams' conviction and the impact on confidence in policing. They claimed the tribunal panel, comprising a QC specialising in employment law, an assistant chief constable from South Wales Police and a former police officer, had placed too much reliance on personal testimonials and character references, including from Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council.


"The issue of the public interest and public confidence is not and cannot be dependent upon the personal mitigation of an individual officer, even where an officer has been able to marshal a significant number of testimonials which speak to confidence being maintained by her retention," said Studd and Hobbs.


As for Gutty, the legal document said the PAT had not assessed the seriousness of her offending and had "ignored" comments from the sentencing judge about what had happened. "What is clear is that there was no proper analysis of why the conviction for an offence of domestic violence is 'especially serious' for police officers," it said.


The Tribunal was also criticised by the Met's lawyers for focusing "too narrowly" on medical evidence that had provided a possible explanation for Gutty's assault, and not giving enough weight to public protection "The PAT was duty bound to consider the risk of DC Gutty behaving in a similar vein again in circumstances where she was dealing with members of the public in the course of her duties as a police officer," said the document.


As you might expect, the legal teams representing Gutty and Williams strongly argued that the PAT rulings should not be overturned. For Williams, Gerard Boyle QC said there had been no "error of law" on the part of the Tribunal. "The {PAT} gave a considered decision demonstrating engagement with the relevant factors and reached a rational, lawful and proportionate decision on the facts of what is, on any view, an exceptional case," asserted Boyle, in a legal document outlining his case. Mrs Justice Heather Williams is expected to deliver her ruling in the coming days or weeks.


The stakes could not be higher - particularly for the two police officers involved. Four years after the offences took place and after an independent panel ruled (twice in Gutty's case) that they should not be sacked, their careers once again hang in the balance. Last year, the force answered a request under the Freedom of Information Act which revealed that 150 serving police officers in the Met had criminal convictions. They included convictions for firearms offences, dangerous driving and possession of drugs. Why are the cases of Williams, who has an otherwise exemplary record in policing, and Gutty, who had serious medical problems at the time of the assault, being pursued when others are not? Is dismissal really the only option or is the Met trying to save face because its decisions have been criticised and upended?


Scotland Yard's view is that there are important legal principles to be determined. "The Met is seeking to ensure a lawful and consistent approach to misconduct hearings in the future, bearing in mind there is a serious issue about how disciplinary panels and PAT’s approach criminal convictions. These PAT rulings currently leave a lack of clarity for disciplinary panels in determining the outcome of such conduct cases and this has an associated impact on public confidence," the force said in a statement, last year.


However, the Met's recent record in high-profile legal cases makes me question its approach. In March, the High Court declared that the force had breached the rights of the organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard after it had contested a claim for judicial review. Scotland Yard then asked the two judges who made the ruling for permission to appeal, but they refused. Undeterred, it went directly to the Court of Appeal; again, permission was denied. The Court said there was "no arguable basis on which it can be said that the [High] Court's decision was wrong".


It was a poor error of judgment on the Met's part to prolong such emotive legal proceedings. Just because you can mount a legal argument doesn't mean you should do. It would have been a sign of maturity and common-sense to admit defeat, accept the ruling and learn lessons for the future.


The cases of Robyn Williams and Asweina Gutty are different, of course, with strong arguments on both sides; perhaps the Met's submissions will carry the day. But the two officers are not serial offenders, corrupt or dangerous. After their character and conduct underwent rigorous and independent scrutiny they were allowed to return to work, under supervision, in order to help keep London safe. Not for the first time, Scotland Yard may have lost sight of the bigger picture.





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