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PSNI officers cannot be subjected to disciplinary proceedings for alleged misbehaviour before they joined the force

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Senior judges overturned an earlier finding that the PSNI has jurisdiction to deal with charges specifically related to misconduct prior to recruitment (PA)

Police officers in Northern Ireland cannot be subjected to disciplinary proceedings for alleged misbehaviour before they joined the force, the Court of Appeal ruled.

Senior judges overturned an earlier finding that the PSNI has jurisdiction to deal with charges specifically related to misconduct prior to recruitment.

The verdict came in a legal challenge by a former constable who failed to disclose details about previous jobs where he was said to have received a warning and made unauthorised payments to himself.

Mr Justice Scoffield confirmed that the previous judicial determination that the PSNI’s Code of Ethics and conduct regulations allowed disciplinary action to be taken against Gareth Watson for pre-attestation behaviour is to be set aside.

He said: “A person cannot breach the Code at a time when they are not subject to it because they are not then a police officer.”

Mr Watson completed training and graduated as a constable in 2017.

But it later emerged he had failed to disclose details about two earlier part-time sales assistant jobs when completing a security vetting questionnaire.

In one of the roles, at a Matalan store, he was given a warning for gross misconduct, the court heard.

Mr Watson later went on to work at a menswear shop where he was said to have made 10 unauthorised payments to himself involving a total sum of £1,675.

He subsequently took out a loan to repay that employer.

In 2021 police set up a panel to deal with a charge of making a false declaration under the PSNI (Conduct) Regulations 2016.

Despite not being a serving officer when he signed the questionnaire, it was alleged that he never sought to correct the information and breached the Code of Ethics.

A High Court judge previously held that the disciplinary panel has jurisdiction to examine the claims of misconduct before he was attested as an officer.

Mr Watson, who resigned from the PSNI in March last year, challenged that determination.

Ruling on the appeal, Mr Justice Scoffield said the Code was clearly designed to establish professional standards for the conduct and practice of police officers when they occupy that office.

“The act of attestation is itself a solemn and significant step, at which point (but not before) the officer agrees to be subject to the heightened standards expected of those occupying the office of constable,” he said.

“It is only after a course of training and instruction that a candidate for the constabulary is likely to properly understand the nature and demands of those ethical standards.

”It was accepted, however, that an officer convicted of a criminal offence committed prior to their recruitment could still face conduct sanctions.

Emphasising the need to maintain public confidence in the PSNI by ensuring any wrongdoing is dealt with, the judge held that improper behaviour before officers join the force is in a different category.

“It might well render that person unfit to be trusted with the office of constable and its attendant powers; and it is just as important that such matters come to light and have appropriate consequences; but this will not amount to police misconduct,” he said.

He also highlighted the PSNI’s “rigorous vetting process” as one of a number of mechanisms already in place to deal with any concerning pre-attestation behaviour by potential recruits.

Dismissing a separate ground of appeal related to non-disclosure after Mr Watson became an officer, Mr Justice Scoffield added: “The panel had jurisdiction to proceed to consider alleged misconduct on the part of the appellant on the basis of the ongoing duty point.”