|Former Conservative Party chief whip Andrew Mitchell|
In The Sunday Times of February 16 2014 the human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti wrote a comment piece, 'A policeman’s lot must include being called a liar.' In that she said that a successful libel action against Andrew Mitchell could set a dangerous precedent:
"The decision of an officer, backed by the Police Federation, to sue Andrew Mitchell for libel over his account of the Plebgate affair risks setting a very troubling precedent that could leave all of us less able to challenge abuses of power and hold the police to account for the normal discharge of their vital duties."She explained that being called a liar should fall among the rough and tumble of police life:
"It may be unfair, but serving police officers will be, and are, called liars every day. It’s as much an occupational hazard as being trolled on Twitter is for me. Inevitably, much of their work in “keeping the Queen’s peace” involves less-than-happy exchanges with those who may want to dispute their treatment afterwards. If a criminal charge follows, a defendant can put his word against that of an officer in court. But what if the evidence or public interest does not warrant a prosecution but the citizen wants to complain about police conduct? Or if damaging allegations are made public, as in the Andrew Mitchell incident? It is surely only right that we are able to deny police allegations about our conduct or character without fear of civil proceedings.
She explained the possible ramifications:
"If we cannot challenge the word of an on-duty police officer for fear of being sued for libel, imagine the consequences that could follow. Imagine the newspaper stories that could not be written and the complaints by the vulnerable, who had been stopped or detained, that might not be heard. Civil legal aid has been just about killed off in this country. And, in any event, it is not available for libel proceedings.
That means that the mere threat of libel action by an officer, backed by his professional association, would be enough to silence all but the wealthiest people in Britain. So it is one thing for ordinary citizens to run around suing one another in civil courts (if they can afford to), but surely police officers should generally restrict their right to legal action to criminal prosecutions — and only when the evidence and public interest justify it."