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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 18:22 GMT
Lawrence friend ruling 'important'
Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993
As the man who witnessed the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence wins the right to sue the police, the BBC's legal affairs correspondent Jon Silverman looks at the implications of the ruling.

This is undoubtedly an important judgment and one which may well pave the way for a number of civil actions against the police.

It establishes the principle that the police have a "duty of care" to victims and witnesses of crime and that if they fail to carry it out, they can be sued for negligence.

This includes, for example, someone at a crime scene who needs medical treatment and does not receive it, or someone who is treated offensively or without courtesy by police officers.

The ruling means that the police can no longer claim a general immunity from such a negligence claim.

Duwayne Brooks
Duwayne Brooks: Felt "belittled" by police
It is also a notable judgment for deciding that Duwayne Brooks is entitled to sue officers under the Race Relations Act for the way they investigated the case.

This precedent serves notice to the police that racial assumptions - even if not overtly expressed - may also be challengeable at a later date in court if they can be shown to have had a bearing on the course and conduct of the investigation.

However, each action would have to be fought on its merits, and a High Court ruling from 1999 enables police officers facing accusations of racism to call character witnesses to testify on their behalf.

All police forces will be concerned at a judgment which increases the likelihood of them being sued for negligence.

Trust and confidence

Last year the Metropolitan force, alone, paid out more than 2m to settle malpractice actions - and a proportion of these involved members of ethnic minorities.

But critics will argue that, in the post-Macpherson Report climate, every force should have put in place victim-centred strategies which, in theory, should obviate the need for legal action.

Since the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the pioneering work done by the Race and Violent Crime Task Force under John Grieve, a wholly new approach has been adopted by the Metropolitan force to racially-motivated crime.

The watchword now is to try, at all costs, to maintain the trust and confidence of the families of crime victims and those closely connected to them.

Lose the family, so the thinking goes, and you risk losing the whole community.

But now there's also the prospect of losing an expensive civil action. It is a judgment which the Met's lawyers may be studying carefully over Easter.

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