False reports to the police are rare

Most complaints are truthful and accurate and amount to a proper grievance. However, there are some that are either false or wild exaggerations of the truth. There are yet more that may well be true but amount only to such a trivial complaint that a reasonable person would not think it worthy of the attention of the authorities. The subject of such reporting has hitherto had limited redress in law. Unless the Crown were wiling to prosecute the accuser the chances of retribution were small. The case of Waxman has brought to notice an area of civil redress.

There is a public interest in the prosecution of all crime. We must encourage genuine reporting and be slow to prosecute a person who has made even a misconceived complaint. It may contrary to public interest to act against an accuser who made a report in good faith. Public interest must, however, be balanced against an individual’s right to be protected from repeated arrests and other instances of state intervention in his life. Also, the scarce resources of the criminal justice system must be used more wisely than pursuing the allegations of an unreasonable person.

There are offences in making a false allegation. It is always open to the Crown to prosecute for perverting the course of justice. That does involve a very high evidential test. Proving that an allegation is false is a different exercise to showing that it was disbelieved. In addition, prosecutions for perverting the course of justice may deter reporting from genuine victims or prevent a person who has lied admitting they have done so. A fixed penalty fine for wasting police time may be a more acceptable option. It offers both a lower threshold for the Crown to reach and a reduced penalty for the false witness. The threat of a fine for wasting police time is less likely to deter a person from admitting the truth than a potential custodial sentence for perverting the course of justice. However, these actions are police lead. The victim of a campaign of vexatious allegations could bring a private prosecution for offences against public justice but he must meet the evidential standard and bear the risk of adverse costs. A private prosecution for wasting police time would require the consent of the DPP which may be refused for the public interest reasons already rehearsed.

Many of these allegations are not false but are only petty grievances. A person who falls victim to such allegations should consider suing in the civil courts for harassment. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 sets down that conduct is harassment if 'a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other'. A reasonable person would surely think that making repeated trivial allegations about another amounted to harassment. Contact can be either direct or indirect. Reports to the police or the local council lead to investigations. However sensitively they are performed such contact is unwelcome to most people. If these reports are vexatious that amounts to indirect contact. This action is not limited to reports to the police or the local authority. Complaints to an employer or a private organisation, such as a sports club, could be included.

The case of Waxman may be used to support a claim at the civil courts. This case involved long standing harassment of Ms. Waxman by Mr. Fogel. Mr. Fogel was the subject of a restraining order. He brought civil proceedings against Ms. Waxman. CPS did not prosecute on the basis that the order did not prohibit bringing civil proceedings. Ms. Waxman brought a case against CPS seeking damages. The Court decided that the commencement and service of civil proceedings was a form of conduct that might well cause anxiety, alarm and distress and so were capable of amounting to harassment. Mr. Fogel was using the Courts to harass Ms. Waxman. There are those who use the police and the councils in a similar way.

A civil action should be preferred to a complaint to the police. Although costs are a consideration at the civil courts the standard of proof is lower. Both compensation and an injunction order can be sought. It is unrealistic to seek an injunction order which prevents a person ever raising complaint to the authorities. Even an incredible witness may be a genuine victim in the future. One possible compromise is an order that prevents the harasser from calling the authorities save for a genuine emergency. That may not address the situation fully since, in many cases, the problem lies in the fact that the person concerned lacks the judgement to see the difference between a genuine emergency and mild annoyance. However, the mere ruling would be useful. It would undermine the credibility of the accuser permanently. A copy could be sent to the local constabulary or the council with a request that this be considered before further investigations are commenced. If that were disregarded a complaint to the IPCC may be justified.

This would not be appropriate in every case. A large number of reports from one source may evidence a genuine concern and such reporting must be encouraged. Nevertheless there are instances where extensive reporting has a more sinister motivation and we must offer some protection to its victim. It is a fundamental right of every citizen of the UK to complain to the police or other authority but it not an absolute right. The right to make reports is capable of restriction in circumstances where it is necessary to protect a legitimate objective.

Author: Jo Morris, Barrister, Church Court Chambers