Friday, November 21, 2014

Chipping away at police unaccountability

Traditionally, our police have enjoyed a wide discretion over who to prosecute and how. Sometimes, this is a good thing - it means that the time of the courts is not wasted on minor crimes. In other cases, its use is more questionable, enabling the police to selectively enforce laws, persecute those they dislike or want an excuse to put under bail, and ignore crimes by friends, relations, or fellow officers. And in some cases, such as the Roastbusters, its use appears to be truly mind-boggling.

The key problem here is that there has been no public accountability over police charging decisions. Who gets charged and with what, is secret. But thanks to a recent Ombudsman's decision, that could be about to change.

The decision concerns a request for information concerning the Police's decision not to lay a charge of manslaughter against Christopher Drummer for a shooting during a hunting trip (Drummer was instead charged with careless use of a firearm causing death and jailed). The police refused, claiming legal privilege. The Ombudsman accepted that the material was privileged, but found that there was a public interest in release of a summary as

The complainant was entitled, as is the public, to a fuller explanation from the Police about why they decided to charge Mr Dummer with the lesser charge of carelessly using a firearm causing death. Disclosure of a summary of reasons for this decision serves to increase the transparency of the decision-making process and to promote the accountability of the Police for their decision.

The upshot: the Police will have to release summaries of prosecution decisions on request, at least in major cases, allowing them to be scrutinised to see whether they are justifiable. The application to the Roastbusters case is obvious.