Yet another instance of how the police favour allegations over investigation and how members of the public can cry ‘harassment’ as a way of enforcing their will upon another to evade justice…
Mrs A contacted me a few days ago via the Action Against Police service to ask for advice on a harassment notice she’d been issued by Bedfordshire Police.
In June she employed the services of a local builder to do some work at her home. Neglect and chaos ensued. Not only was the completed job below par, electrical wires were left hanging out of a badly plastered wall. When Mrs A politely asked the builder if he could fix the mess he told her it would cost extra. He quoted another £230 to complete the job she’d already paid him £1380 to do.
Mrs A exchanged a number of e-mails with the builder politely expressing her dissatisfaction at the work and the unfair additional charge. The builder justified his shoddy workmanship, blaming his efforts on health and safety restrictions imposed on him by ‘the fire department’.
In the end Mrs A got another builder in to complete the work. She then e-mailed the rogue builder and asked for a refund of £170. The builder refused. More e-mails were exchanged, each time with the builder digging in his heels. Eventually she e-mailed him to say that if he didn’t refund her she would take the matter to the small claims court. The builder responded with a lengthy list of excuses as to why he was in the right and she was in the wrong. At the end of the e-mail he signed off with:
“I respectfully confirm that this matter is closed from my perspective and thank you to refrain from sending your constant stream of emails, which I feel to be threatening, blackmailing and harassing.”
Mrs A sent no further e-mails.
The following day, Mrs A got an e-mail from Bedfordshire police. They told her that after reading her e-mails to the builder, they had recorded her actions as a crime of harassment. It was now a police matter and she was not to contact the builder again. They tossed her a bone by pointing out the builder had been gracious enough to allow Mrs A to get away with just a few words of advice from plod, for daring to exercise her lawful rights to complain.
Just because you say it’s harassment doesn’t make it so
Harassment allegations are the new lifeblood of the lower rank and file of the police service. Without the steady stream of ‘he said, she said’ accusations flowing from those with personal grievances to settle, most PCs would have little else to do. For that reason they are very proactive in policing the virtual world of hurt feelings. In this instance, the ‘investigating’ WPC came to the bizarre conclusion that Mrs. A’s attempts at getting the builder to fulfil his contract was a criminal offence under section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act. In effect, by outlawing Mrs A’s consumer rights to complain, the police were helping the builder evade his contractual obligations, under force of criminal law. A case of using two wrongs to make a right. Needless to say nobody ever bothered to ask Mrs A for her side of the story, and the WPC despatched a badly composed harassment warning in haste. Mrs A was further instructed by the police that these allegations would show up on an enhanced criminal record check. Something that Mrs A has to undergo quite regularly to keep her job.
Naturally Mrs A was very concerned about her liberty and her livelihood being put at risk by the actions of a rogue builder – and a rogue police officer. She felt that the police had sided with the criminal and treated the victim as the perpetrator. I assured her that was precisely what they had done, and did most of the times the dreaded ‘H’ word was used.
The problems with harassment allegations nearly always begin with the police’s misunderstanding of the Home Office edict that all criminal allegations should be taken at face value. This is set out within the National Crime Recording Standard, which places an obligation on the police to accept what a self elected victim alleges, unless there is “credible evidence to the contrary.”
2.2 An incident will be recorded as a crime (notifiable offence) for ‘victim related offences’ if, on the balance of probability:
(a) the circumstances of the victims report amount to a crime defined by law (the police will determine this, based on their knowledge of the law and counting rules); and
(b) there is no credible evidence to the contrary immediately available.
I would have expected the police to have found “credible evidence to the contrary” in this case, just by reading the e-mails. However, the rules go on to explain that any crime record should be cancelled if the police (on cursory investigation) decide that no crime has been committed.
2.5 Once recorded, a crime will remain recorded unless additional verifiable information (AVI) is found and documented which determines that no notifiable crime has occurred or crimes are transferred or cancelled i.e. where crimes are created in error, or as a duplicate of an existing crime.
If the WPC had read the e-mails, as she claimed, she should have concluded they were a perfectly reasonable and lawful exchange between dissatisfied consumer and service provider. I read all the e-mails myself. Mrs A remained polite and composed throughout. In fact the strongest term she used were the words “extremely annoyed”. At no point could anything she said be misconstrued as harassment. Unless of course you are an unscrupulous builder who knows how to dodge liability by invoking the magic ‘H’ word and yanking the police’s chain.
What the police seem to forget is that harassment is, among other things, unwanted communication. You cannot claim someone is harassing you just because you are losing a dialogue you are actively a part of. Mrs A did not send an unreasonable number of e-mails (5 in total) and the builder responded to each of them in turn. Only in his last e-mail did he suggest she stop writing to him. Which Mrs A promptly did.
Even if the e-mails could be misconstrued as causing ‘alarm and distress’ to a cowboy builder with fragile sensitivities, no reasonable person would have expected the contents to do so. Section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 prohibits harassment under the following terms:
1(1)A person must not pursue a course of conduct—
(a)which amounts to harassment of another, and
(b)which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.
(2)For the purposes of this section, the person whose course of conduct is in question ought to know that it amounts to or involves harassment of another if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other.
Mrs A, nor for that matter any reasonable person, ought to have known that exercising a lawful right to complain about poor service, would be misconstrued as harassment. In any event, as Mrs A was intending to take the matter to court if the builder did not return her money, she was bound by the civil procedure rules set out by the county courts to inform him of that intention. Threatening to take someone to county court if they don’t provide a refund isn’t blackmail or harassment, it is an enactment of law. The county courts expect you to have taken every reasonable step to sort the matter out with your opponent in advance of issuing a summons. Any failure to do so could seriously impede your claim should it get to court.
Section 1(3) of the Protection from Harassment Act provides several defences to harassment:
(3)Subsection (1) does not apply to a course of conduct if the person who pursued it shows—
(a)that it was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime,
(b)that it was pursued under any enactment or rule of law or to comply with any condition or requirement imposed by any person under any enactment, or
(c)that in the particular circumstances the pursuit of the course of conduct was reasonable.
Mrs A’s conduct was reasonable, under enactment of law and – in a bid to to stop the builder from scamming her – the prevention of crime. A hat trick by all accounts.
If the WPC involved had even the most remedial understanding of the Act, then Mrs A should never have been treated like a criminal and the criminal treated the victim. Not only has she been tagged on the Police National Database with an unfair Police Information Notice, the police have attempted to use it as a quasi-restraining order, suggesting she must use a solicitor to bring a civil action against the rogue builder; despite the fact that nobody is compelled to use a solicitor. We are all free to represent ourselves in any court, including any pre-action associated with it.
I’ve written to Bedfordshire police on Mrs A’s behalf and invited them to delete the original crime record and remove all data involving the harassment from police systems. I’d ask for an apology too but I’m not a miracle worker.
Meanwhile, if you find yourself on the receiving end of the police’s en vogue criminal lottery, aka harassment notices, please consider using my Action Against Police service for help and advice.