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The Met case with no appeal


The Metropolitan Police has eight days to make an important decision.


Is it going to continue its legal fight to sack two officers who have been convicted of serious criminal offences, or will it accept defeat?


The officers in question are Superintendent Robyn Williams and Constable Asweina Gutty. Both were dismissed by the force following separate internal misconduct hearings, only to be reinstated by the Police Appeals Tribunal (PAT). Scotland Yard contested the Tribunal's rulings in the High Court, but two weeks ago a judge comprehensively swept each challenge aside and refused permission for the Met to lodge an appeal. Its only legal avenue now is to petition the Court of Appeal directly, but time is running out.


The decision the Met makes is important not only for Williams and Gutty, who would like to put the long-running saga behind them and carry on with their work, but it will demonstrate whether or not the organisation is capable of accepting a viewpoint other than its own.


Never give up


One of the traditional strengths of the police service has been the determination of officers and detectives never to give up on a case - to gather evidence, pursue suspects and deliver justice for victims. There are numerous examples of murders solved and fugitives found years later through painstaking and dedicated investigative work. Quite rightly, policing prides itself on this tenacity and bloody-mindedness.


The flip side of the 'never give up' mentality is that some forces just won't admit when they have got something wrong. The institution becomes blinkered, struggles to see things from a different angle and can't accept external criticism or advice. That's been a particular failing of the Metropolitan Police, most recently over its resistance to legal proceedings brought by the organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard and its refusal to acknowledge that it hampered the work of an independent panel examining the Daniel Morgan murder case, which I have written about before.


We have seen it again now, in the way Scotland Yard is dealing with the Williams and Gutty cases. On the face of it there should be no place in the service for an officer, Williams, who has been found guilty of possessing an indecent image nor for someone, Gutty, who admitted assaulting her partner. It is understandable, perhaps, that the Met opted to dismiss them. But if you look closely at the details the outcome is far from clear. Each case was subject to an exhaustive review by an independent panel (comprising an employment law specialist, an assistant chief constable from an outside force and a retired police officer ) which imposed a final written warning instead. The decisions were then scrutinised by a High Court judge who upheld them. That really ought to be the end of it.


Justifiable decisions


In Williams' case, the judge, Mrs Justice Heather Williams, said "no basis" had been shown for overturning the Police Appeals Tribunal decision. She said the PAT had applied the correct legal approach and reached a "permissible" conclusion because of the "unique circumstances of the conviction, the officer’s stellar career, the substantial impact she had had on enhancing the reputation of the {Met} as a whole and its assessment that her dismissal would reduce confidence in the police in some of the communities in which the {Met} had struggled to gain trust."


I have no doubt that the decision as to whether the Superintendent should keep her job or not was finely balanced. If there had been a sexual motive to her offending, if it was part of a pattern of behaviour or if she presented a threat she would have rightly been fired. If she had been an officer with just a few years' service or had not had such a positive impact during her career the scales would have also tipped towards dismissal. But the unique circumstances of the case and the 'credit' she had earned in the job meant the decision, by the narrowest of margins, went in her favour. If the Met is concerned that allowing Williams to stay sets a precedent I think it is mistaken; the judge said the PAT was "entitled" to regard it as an "exceptional case in which dismissal for the officer’s gross misconduct was not a necessary and proportionate sanction".


As for Gutty, Mrs Justice Williams was equally clear that the PAT was justified in agreeing to reinstate her in a case which she also thought was "unusual". The Tribunal panel found that the assault the officer carried out, in May 2018, was related to psychiatric problems she was suffering from at the time. Gutty had been off work, sick, for four months. Her illness had started after a course about interviewing child witnesses triggered "traumatic memories" from her own childhood; she was diagnosed with a number of disorders, including post-traumatic stress, prescribed medication and advised to undergo treatment.


The Met challenged the PAT's decision, arguing, in short, that it had placed too much emphasis on Gutty's mental health and not enough on the seriousness of the offence and the effect on public confidence in policing. But the judge rejected all four grounds advanced by the force's legal team and noted the Tribunal panel's criticism of Scotland Yard that "before the assault and when the officer sought help, occupational health had failed to address the question of disability with sufficient rigour".


Priorities


Instead of being used as a means to reassert control over the misconduct process, Gutty's case ought to have served as a reminder to the Met about the mental health pressures of policing, particularly on those with pre-existing vulnerabilities. Figures disclosed by the force under the Freedom of Information Act show that last year 73,595 sick days were taken by its officers due to anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illness, accounting for almost 20% of total sickness absence - that's at least 200 police officers off work in London every day, due to mental health problems.


The Metropolitan Police has spent tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees trying to dismiss Asweina Gutty and Robyn Williams, but it has not been money well spent. Although the force is right to demand the highest standards of conduct among its officers it chose the wrong two cases to make the point. Gutty had serious health problems at the time she committed her offence; Williams made a bad error of judgment during an otherwise hugely successful and blemish-free police career spanning nearly 40 years. Scotland Yard should stop its legal action and focus instead on the unacceptable cultural failings in parts of the organisation, highlighted in the Operation Hotton report about Charing Cross police station. The new Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, will be expected to make that a priority when he takes up his job in September. Fighting fruitless courtroom battles from the previous regime should not be.


* You can read more from me about the Robyn Williams and Asweina Gutty High Court cases here. There are also background articles on Williams here and here


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