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Dowson & Ors v Chief Constable of Northumbria, High Court, 20 October 2010

18 November 2010
The issues

Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – psychiatric injury.

The facts

Six claims were made by police officers of Northumbria Police against the Chief Constable under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The allegations centred on the actions of Detective Chief Inspector Bob Pallas from July 2002 and July 2003. The basis of the claim was that the Detective Chief Inspector’s actions amounted to harassment of officers under his command, for which the Defendant was vicariously liable. In summary, the general nature of the allegations included complaints about instructions requiring the officers to act contrary to law or incompatibly with the standards of behaviour expected of a member of the Force; that DCI Pallas covered up his own shortcomings by blaming the Claimants; that in doing so he accused the Claimants of lying or failing in their duty; complaints of vulgar abuse, particularly in front of subordinates; unjustified and otherwise demeaning criticisms intended to undermine individual Claimants and which the DCI knew would have been repeated to them. They also denied that their complaints of bullying and harassment brought against the DCI under the Northumbria Force grievance procedure had been rejected because of the DCI’s untruthful denials of misconduct.

The decision

As well as dealing with specific allegations, it was necessary for the Court to stand back and consider the full history insofar as it could be presented in Court. Some of the history, for example a complaint that DCI Pallas had excluded one Claimant from the list of those to whom he sent Christmas cards, threw more light on that Claimant’s extreme sensitivity than it did on the claim for harassment. Other parts of the evidence showed a dysfunctional group of police officers, wracked with division and backbiting, operating inevitably at less than full efficiency over a period of 9 months to the disadvantage of the Northumbria Police.

Most of the factual allegations were rejected. In respect of three allegations (BD3, BD4 and BD5) factual allegations had been accepted by the Trial Judge, at least in part. All of these allegations related to one officer, Mr Dowson. BD3 was an allegation that the DCI had said he wanted to get “rid of” Mr Dowson, at a meeting at which Mr Dowson was not present. BD4 was an allegation that it had been reported to him by another officer that DCI Pallas had said Mr Dowson was “on borrowed time”. BD5 was an allegation that DCI Pallas was openly hostile and belittling to Mr Dowson at daily meetings and weekly intelligence meetings and undermined his authority in front of junior officers. In respect of these, the Judge was satisfied that there were occasions in his dealings with Mr Dowson when DCI Pallas was insensitive, belittling and overbearing. Sometimes this was the way in which he expressed disagreements on matters about which there were respectable views on both sides. Mr Dowson’s life was made very difficult for a period of time as a result of this conduct. Nonetheless, this conduct did not amount to harassment. The officers were working in a stressful working environment in which case hardened officers were dealing with career hardened criminals. This was more than a clash of personalities but it was not conduct calculated to cause distress and although it was unacceptable, it was not oppressive in the sense described in the leading cases. It was a curt and dismissive attitude likely to have the effect, even if unintended, of undermining Mr Dowson’s own self-confidence and the esteem in which he was held by others. In the light of this and keeping in mind that for conduct to amount to the civil tort of harassment it must be of an order which would sustain criminal liability, the Judge concluded that Mr Dowson’s claim failed by a considerable margin.

All six claims dismissed.

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