Special Issue on Public Law and Police Accountability: Editorial

Jamie Grace and Vicky Thirlaway [1]

1. Introduction to the Special Issue

Police accountability is something that, as part of contemporary discourse, is a disputed term in the sense of exact detail, but as a concept is often seen as essential in a functioning democratic society [2]. While there are different notions of police accountability [3], this Special Issue focuses on police accountability through the lens of public law. The extent to which police accountability is achieved within the jurisdiction of the UK is currently, as ever, a ripe topic for discussion. In truth, however, the issues discussed here are highly relevant throughout Europe and indeed across the globe. Even where the focus is on police conduct that is specific to the UK, aspects of European human rights law shape the analysis provided in several of the pieces included in this Issue.

Public law has much to offer in an academic analysis of a multitude of policing contexts and strategies: not least surveillance and security in the pursuit of counter-extremism; the politics of austerity and what this means for policing; the policing of child sexual exploitation, and/or high-profile abuser cases: to name but a few. Crises of confidence in the police are nothing new: across the decades there has been a pattern of scandal, inquiry and reform. However, current concerns about the spectre of police "snooping", the impact of austerity on policing, and a number of high-profile incidents highlighted better than ever by social media, all combine to make police accountability one of the "hottest topics" currently facing academic public lawyers (we feel).

As well as the discourse about recent and contemporary issues around policing and accountability, police forces in the UK media narrative as also to be seen as continuing to atone for the past: given accountability developments in fora where a spotlight is put on the police involvement in the Hillsborough disaster [4]; on the alleged police supply of information in the 'blacklisting' of trade unionists [5]; and on the scandalous activities of undercover police, or covert human intelligence officers, in forming close and personal, even sexual, relationships with those they placed under surveillance [6].

Allied to this discourse is a growing sense that the right to physically protest in public spaces is being undermined in non-subtle and prolific ways [7]. This is a concern, as greater respect for civil liberties and a fresh focus on the right to protest are arguably required to balance the increase in electronic surveillance and state interference in online discussion and dissent [8].

2. Background to the special issue

Because of the ever-growing criticality around public law and police accountability, at Sheffield Hallam, just over one year ago, we began to plan a conference addressing 'public law and police accountability'.

At a basic level, we were compelled by our own research interests in the policing field, and as teachers of public law, to coordinate an event that allowed for some element of policing parrhesia - that is, to 'speak truth to power' in the policing context (as Ashley Savage adroitly discusses, more literally, in his article on police whistleblowing elsewhere in this Special Issue).

Human rights and social justice at Sheffield Hallam are core pillars of our LL.B courses and of our MA in Applied Human Rights course. We try to familiarise all our students, as a result, with the use of public law principles to address societally imbalanced power relationships; that is, with the notion that public law can do real good in the world.

Our efforts as part of a larger team of successful teachers of public law is greatly assisted by the work of the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Hallam, and particular research clusters within the Centre: the Socio-Legal Studies Cluster and the Human Rights and Social Justice Cluster, to name two in particular [9].

As a result of this platform, the inaugural Sheffield Hallam Public Law conference, on the theme of 'Public Law and Police Accountability', took place on 25th March 2015, and was a part of a series of academic and public-engagement events that formed our Department's 'Social Justice Week 2015' initiative.

We were extremely pleased to be joined at the start of the event by two initial keynote speakers; Rebecca Hilsenrath, Legal Director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, discussed the findings of the Commission's inquiry into adult deaths in custody, and Professor Ann Macaskill, Member of the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner's Independent Ethics Panel, and Head of Research Ethics at Sheffield Hallam University, who spoke about the challenges of 'Promoting Ethical Practice across the Police Force' and the role of the new South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner's Independent Ethics Panel.

At the end of the event, our third keynote speaker was Dr. Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire; who spoke about the challenges facing South Yorkshire Police in restoring confidence and public trust that has been undermined by the legacy of the Hillsborough disaster, as well as the recently-revealed child sexual exploitation scandals that have emerged in connection with the force area.

Our conference was also supported by around a dozen policing researchers and law academics from a number of institutions, and who presented their research on a wide variety of police accountability topics. The papers in this Special Issue are a small sample, seen in that light, of the stimulating discussion that took place on the day.

3. An overview of papers in the special issue

This Special issue contains a trio of peer-reviewed articles and a number of comment pieces. In their article, Jamie Grace (Sheffield Hallam) and Marion Oswald (Winchester) explore the issues presented by the under-regulation of police intelligence gathering in the context of counter-extremism and public protest. Ashley Savage (Northumbria), in our second article, addresses and evaluates the current legal framework for whistleblowing in the police service in the UK, and in the light of European human rights law, while in our third article Richard Hyde (Nottingham) examines the interplay between public law and private law principles in holding the police accountable for their operational responses and strategies; through the deployment in litigation of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the common law of the tort of negligence, respectively.

Michaela Bartlett (EHRC) gives a précis of the Equality and Human Rights Commission's inquiry into adult deaths in custody, with particular reference to the issues surrounding deaths in police custody, and an update on progress since the overall report was published.

Vicky Thirlaway (Sheffield Hallam) provides first a comment piece concerned with the contentious issue of teaching political aspects of public law; and second a case comment-style piece on the place of the decision of the High Court in Chief Constable of Bedfordshire v Golding [2015] EWHC 1875 (QB) with regard to the changing landscape of policing public protest as a whole. The Special Issue ends with a book review by Jamie Grace: offering a view on the text by Stuart Lister and Michael Rowe on the Accountability of Policing.

Since our conference last March, the socio-political landscape of policing in the United Kingdom and across Europe has been altered, perhaps permanently, by the terrorist attacks in Paris and across the globe. Those who argue that it is important to preserve individual liberties and impose strict boundaries and regulation on the activities of the state now find that the debate is more sensitive than ever and, arguably, more vital than ever.

[1]Sheffield Hallam University

[2] See Stuart Lister and Michael Rowe (Eds.), Accountability of Policing (Routledge, 2015)

[3] Ibid .

[6] See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24817731 (accessed at 30.11.2015)