The position used to be that such misconduct hearings would be held in private except in exceptional circumstances (as decided by the IPCC). The changes that came into force last Friday by virtue of The Police (Conduct) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 mean that now, the default position is that certain types of hearings are to be held in public, including:
- those in which an officer or a special constable has been accused of gross misconduct;
- those in which an officer or special constable has been accused of breaching professional standards and is already on a final warning;
- those in which the relevant force considers that there is already enough evidence for the officer to leave the force without delay (“Special Case Hearings”); and
- those which concern appeals brought before the Police Appeals Tribunal.
It has been claimed that these changes are a positive step towards improving levels of transparency in relation to police governance. On the face of it, this is true.
However, the new regulations also make provision for the chair of the disciplinary panel to exclude any person from the hearing as s/he sees fit, without any apparent restriction or control on the use of such power. In addition, no duty has been placed on the police to notify the public when or where the disciplinary hearing will take place.
And what’s more, “any interested party” can write to the chairperson of the panel in advance of the hearing and request either that notification of its commencement should not be given, or that the hearing be held in private, or both.
Our experience with other professional tribunal and disciplinary hearings has not been positive. Sometimes, it seems that the decision to exclude the press and the public from the proceedings has been made without any proper analysis.
A recurring example of this approach to openness has come from the relatively new National College for Teaching and Leadership, which is now the regulatory body for teachers. It has broad powers to restrict access to disciplinary hearings – and several recent instances suggest panel chairpersons will not hesitate to use them.
It should also be remembered that unlike the in the Court system where there is now an obligation to hear representations from the media who wish to challenge reporting restrictions, there is no such obligation when it comes to panels holding professional disciplinary hearings – they can simply refuse to consider your argument.
So, whilst the new Police disciplinary rules appear promising at first glance, in truth it may be that not much will change in practice.
Yes, the standard position is going to be that such hearings are to be held in public, but with wide discretion to exclude members of the press and the public from the proceedings (assuming the existence of the case has not already been withheld), rather disappointingly, it may turn out that the new openness when it comes to police disciplinaries is little more than a mirage.