Northern Ireland news

PSNI spends £52m on out-of-court settlements – but denies buying people's silence

Almost £52.9 million was spent on out-of-court settlements from 2012-17
Brendan Hughes

THE PSNI has paid more than £52 million since 2012 on out-of-court settlements - but police deny paying people off to silence them.

More than £9m has also been spent settling employment tribunal cases over the six-year period, figures obtained by The Irish News reveal.

Among the cases settled out of court was a legal action last year in which a civilian employee alleged she was sexually harassed by a detective constable.

The details emerge after last year's global '#MeToo' movement, which saw women and men breaking their silence on their personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the wake of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

The PSNI said a settlement in a civil claim may include that there is no admission of liability and that neither party may disclose the terms of settlement.

But it strongly denied that people were being paid for their silence in cases, including those cases involving sexual allegations.

In total, almost £52.9m was spent on out-of-court settlements in around 8,500 cases from 2012-17, which includes legal actions taken by members of the public.

There was also more than £9.4m paid out in 720 employment tribunal cases since 2012, according to a freedom of information request.

Last October, civilian employee Sinead Hampson sought damages against the PSNI, claiming that unwanted sexualised touching, harassment and bullying were "brushed under the carpet" amid a culture of misogyny and male chauvinism within the force.

At the start of the High Court case in Belfast, a judge was told three other women made allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the same detective – including incidents of being slapped on the backside and told to bend over for a spanking.

Ms Hampson was the only one who made a formal complaint.

It was claimed detective constable Ronan Sharkey repeatedly put his hands on her shoulders during incidents in work at stations in Derry between 2009 and 2012.

Mr Sharkey, later promoted to sergeant, denied her claims and those by the other women. He never faced any prosecution.

However, the court heard an internal disciplinary process found he breached Ms Hampson's integrity by placing his hand on her hip. He was cautioned and fined £250.

The case was set to run for five days, but out-of-court negotiations led to a confidential settlement being reached.

The lawsuit was stayed, with Ms Hampson's costs paid by the PSNI as part of the terms, and no further details were disclosed.

PSNI senior lawyer Louise Crilley strongly denied that out-of-court settlements were being used to stop people speaking out about issues, including sexual allegations.

In a statement she said: "I absolutely refute this. PSNI take all allegations of sexual assault or harassment extremely seriously and in appropriate circumstances these would be investigated to identify any criminality or misconduct.

"Inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is not tolerated and there are mechanisms in place to deal with these via grievance and bullying and harassment service policies."

She said any police misconduct will result in disciplinary sanction which can include dismissal.

"In a civil claim both parties may obtain appropriate legal advice regarding their respective liability positions and cases," she said.

"These will either reach a mutually acceptable settlement or will be contested. Settlement terms have to be agreed by both sides and do not ordinarily prevent the claimant from talking about other aspects of the claim outside of the agreed settlement terms. This is standard practice in civil claims of any kind."

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