Civil litigation by citizens against Australian police between 1994 and 2002

Criminology Research Council grant ; (19/01-02)

This research was the first detailed attempt to describe, understand and analyse the nature and extent of civil litigation against police in Australia. It used interviews with police, lawyers and ombudsmen and an analysis of civil cases to identify the key issues involved in civil litigation against police. The report identified a partial shift in police responses to civil litigation from an adversarial approach towards a risk management approach. However, concerns about being seen as 'too soft', and the need to maintain police officer morale through rigorous defence of civil suits are limiting a fuller shift to a risk management approach.

The research concluded that courts are increasingly willing to award aggravated and punitive damages against police. A risk management approach that utilises meaningful apologies may lessen the risk of aggravated damages and satisfy many complainants. Further, the case analysis and interviews indicated that matters being litigated are serious breaches of police standards, are not generally heat-of-the-moment split-second decisions, and that civil litigation provides an additional means of making police accountable.