Writing legal letters with empathy

Lord Bramall, holding his Field Marshal's baton

Lord Bramall, holding his Field Marshal’s baton

Let us hope this never happens. You are accused of a serious sexual offence involving children, dating back several decades. The police investigate and 20 policemen search your house for 10 hours, lunching in the village pub where it is obvious what they are doing. You are a public figure, and someone tips off the tabloid press about the allegations against you. The police deny it is them, but there are plenty of past examples of policemen earning some extra money by selling stories to newspapers.

After a year or two of painful delay, the police write to you to inform you that their investigation is completed and no further action is being taken. In effect, you have been cleared, but the letter is written in heavy, official prose that seems designed more to exonerate the police from blame than to give you reassurance that your nightmare is over. The police refuse to apologise for the investigation, for the tone of the letter, or for failing to say in unequivocal terms that the shadow of suspicion is no longer falling on you. Their argument is that they cannot apologise for doing their duty, or provide reassurance that may later prove to be inappropriate.

In IP Draughts’ view, there is a right way and a wrong way to write a letter of this kind. It is possible to write a letter that is legally watertight and yet provides comfort to the recipient. His attempt at such a letter appears below.

First, though, some background on the current case. The Metropolitan Police, the main police force in London, has recently closed its investigation of allegations of sexual crimes that were made against Field Marshal Lord Bramall. Here is how the mid-market tabloid, the Daily Mail, covered the story.

Field Marshal is the UK name for a 5-star general. In most generations, the senior general in the British army gets no higher than the 4-star rank of General. Usually a Field Marshal’s baton is only awarded during war time, for exceptional service. Winston Churchill made a few of his generals Field Marshals towards the end of the Second World War, including Monty. General Bramall was in charge of the army at the time of the Falklands Conflict in 1982 and was promoted to Field Marshal a few months after the sucessful conclusion of that conflict.

Some more background. Lord Bramall is now 92 years old. His wife was dying at the time of the police raid, and in fact she died a few months later. Although mentally confused, she remembered that the police had visited, and later kept asking Lord Bramall whether she had done something wrong.

According to press reports, the allegation was made by one man who has made allegations against various public figures, and the police found no other evidence to support the allegation.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the police should have intruded on the Bramall family home on the basis of a single allegation unsupported by further evidence other than (apparently) press reports that repeated the single allegation. There is a context to this question, including the Jimmy Savile case, that is beyond the scope of this article.

Instead, let’s just focus on the letter. Some of the text of the letter can be found at the Daily Mail link above. IP Draughts has seen a version of the complete letter in the last few days but can’t seem to find it from internet searching today.

Another argument made by the police is that this letter was addressed to Lord Bramall’s solicitors, and therefore the tone was different to a letter written directly to an individual. IP Draughts is not convinced by this argument, but even if it is correct, the Metropolitan Police should be sending a ‘sign off’ letter to the individual who has been investigated. Just as they are learning to show empathy to the victims of crime, they should learn to show empathy to the victims of allegations of crime.

The issue is brought into sharp relief because the victim of the allegation in this case is an exceptionally distinguished public servant, and because of his age. But the same courtesy should be shown to any victim of such a situation. Here is IP Draughts’ attempt at such a letter:

Dear Lord Bramall

I am writing to confirm that the Metropolitan Police has concluded its investigation of allegations that have been made against you, and that it is taking no further action.

The Metropolitan Police has a duty to investigate allegations of crime. We do this without fear or favour, but we seek at all times to be courteous to those with whom we deal. We recognise that any police investigation can be distressing both for the victims of crime and for those who are investigated, regardless of the outcome. Thank you for your cooperation as we performed our legal duties.

You will appreciate that we cannot make any commitment about future action, for example if new allegations are made or new information comes to light. However, based on the information that we currently have, this matter is at an end.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this matter, please contact [ ].

Yours sincerely
Steve Rodhouse, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police




Filed under Legal practice

2 responses to “Writing legal letters with empathy

  1. For me, this is mainly about political culture, combined with a tectonic shift on the part of the police towards believing the “victim”, which has the potential to be just as unfair as any other bias. This can be seen in this recording of Steve Rodhouse explaining his actions in relation to the Leon Brittan investigation: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/f2477613-2e82-4de3-b7b1-2360ca8712ca. It seems that if you are a public figure caught up in a historic sex allegation, the Met will take twice as long to consider the allegations as they would for private figures, and go through several internal reviews, just to appease public (ie newspaper and MP) concern. This may help the truthful victim, but it doesn’t help the innocent party who is accused, and who becomes a victim as a result.

    I wouldn’t want to generalise about the letter-writing skills of police officers. Some lawyers are bloody awful at writing. In a case like this I suspect the letter, or the template on which it was based, went through several hands including that of the Met’s legal department.

    In the interests of public confidence, all chief officers of police should put their CVs on the internet. It seems to be very difficult to find Mr Rodhouse’s CV.

  2. This is the tip of several icebergs: the poor calibre of police officers (I would frankly be astounded if many were capable of writing a half-decent letter), the politicisation of the police, moralising by the police (it’s their job to bring people to justice, not to moralise about it), the fixation on the victim (who, in this case, turned out to be a complete shyster), the systemic cover-ups of their own failings (like shooting innocent Brazilian electricians).

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