Liberty: Plebgate officer's libel suit sets 'dangerous precedent'
Human rights group pledges to intervene in court battle that would 'place officers beyond criticism'
THE libel case involving a police officer caught up in the plebgate affair could set a "dangerous" precedent for the way people deal with police, a human rights campaign group has warned.
Metropolitan Police officer Toby Rowland is suing Tory MP Andrew Mitchell for calling him a "liar" in the fallout of the incident. Rowland is the officer at the centre of the episode, who claimed Mitchell called him a "pleb" outside the gates of Downing Street in September 2012, but Mitchell insists the allegation is untrue.
Human rights group Liberty has announced that it will seek to intervene in the legal battle, saying that the case could set "a dangerous and unconstitutional precedent for ordinary people's dealings with the police".
The organisation says people must be able to defend themselves against police claims and deny police allegations about their conduct or character without fear of civil proceedings.
"By holding the threat of legal action over those who disagree with the police's version of events, the police will be effectively insulated from complaints about their actions," it says in a statement.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, adds: "It would effectively place officers beyond criticism, silencing those wanting to protest their innocence. Kids stopped and searched and the vulnerable held in the back of vans don't need another reason to mistrust the police – this would give them a reason to fear them."
According to Liberty, such a situation would breach the right to freedom of expression and other articles in the Human Rights Act. The organisation also raises concerns about a "discriminatory inequality of arms" because police officers can receive financial support from the Police Federation but most individuals have no access to libel litigation funding.
Police officers have taken to Twitter to question whether Liberty is seeking to restrict their legal rights as individuals.
Am I missing something or does Liberty, of all organisations, want restrict the legal rights of individual police officers?
— Sean Jones (@seanjones11kbw) February 12, 2014
— TheCustodySgt (@TheCustodySgt) February 11, 2014
However, Liberty says there are already restrictions on the ability of individuals to sue police under libel laws and believes the restrictions should work both ways.