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Watson v Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, Court of Appeal

8 November 2001
The issues

Civil jury trial – Actions against the police – Cross-examination of witnesses with regard to previous criminal convictions.

The facts

The Claimant had been awarded £21,500 for injuries caused when he was in custody. He had been assaulted by a police constable and a civilian custody officer. It had been argued at trial that it had been the Claimant who had assaulted the officers. The jury believed the Claimant and awarded damages including £16,000 exemplary damages. The police authority appealed against the liability finding and the award of exemplary damages. In particular they said that the Judge should have allowed the authority permission to cross-examine the Claimant on his previous convictions (he had 58 in all including 27 offences relating to criminal damage, driving while disqualified, affray and obstructing the police in the course of their duty. He had 31 previous convictions for offences relating to dishonesty). The Judge had allowed cross-examination with regard to the dishonesty offences but not the other ones.

The decision

1. Previous convictions that were not relevant should not be put to a witness. This applied to criminal and civil cases equally.

2. In reality only dishonesty offences reflect upon the witnesses’ credibility. However a number of offences could equally affect witnesses credibility, even if not “dishonesty” ones. “In many cases it was not easy to draw the line”.

3. The Court had discretion – see CPR1998 Part 32. There was no indication in the Civil Procedure Rules as to how that discretion had to be exercised however. The Judge had allowed cross-examination on the dishonesty offences. It has been put to him that the other offences should also have been put to the Jury, not because they went to credit but because they tended to show that the Claimant was a violent man. In rejecting those submissions it was hard to criticise the Judge.

It was important to note that the Judge had allowed cross-examination on dishonesty and it was unlikely that the offences would have made much of a difference had they been put forward to the Jury. Even if the Judge had been wrong it could not be said that the Appeal should be allowed on the basis of that the decision was unjust.

4. As to damages the Judge had failed to direct the Jury as to the unusualness of exemplary damages of more than three times basic damages. Had the Judge directly properly by reference to Thompson, the figure that exceeded at the top (given by the Judge for exemplary damages would not have been made). The award of exemplary damages was also inconsistent with the other damages awarded. In the absence of proper guidance the award had to be regarded as excessive and was reduced from £16,000 to £9,000.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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