How police officers get away with lying in court

Tampering with evidence and lying in court are the most common allegations of corruption made against the police. On average, 1100 such complaints are made against officers each year. Despite this, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has brought only a handful of prosecutions for perjury in the past decade. This sends out a clear message to police witnesses: lying in court carries little, if any, risk…

What is perjury?
According to the Perjury Act 1911, the offence of perjury can only be made out under the following conditions:

  • The person who lies must be a lawfully sworn witness or interpreter
  • The lie must be part of judicial proceedings (being heard in or on behalf of the court)
  • The liar must deliberately make a false oral or written material statement
  • The liar must know their statement to be untrue

It doesn’t matter if the lies were told during a murder trial or at a prosecution for speeding. As far as the court is concerned all instances of perjury undermine the judicial process and are deemed serious enough to carry a penalty of up to 7 years in jail.

The Act doesn’t stop there. Perjury can also occur under the following instances:

  • False unsworn statements made for the purpose of providing evidence in court
  • False statements made on oath other than in judicial proceedings
  • False statements made to obtain a marriage licence or marriage certificate
  • False statements made to obtain a birth or death certificate
  • False statement made in statutory declarations
  • False declarations made to obtain registration to practise licensed vocations

As ridiculous as it sounds not all lies told in court are perjury. It’s not enough to say a police witness – or any other witness for that matter – lied while giving evidence. That lie must have had a significant effect in securing a conviction or acquittal before it can be considered perjury. Nor can a conviction for perjury be obtained solely on the evidence of a single witness. There must be some other material evidence, such as a letter, a recording or some other written account that proves a serious lie was told (re section 13 of the Perjury Act 1911).

Lying under oath
Officers who give evidence in court are well aware that perjury is difficult to prove and they know the limits of the lies they can tell. If there is no CCTV or other eye witnesses, the police can and will, give the most unfavourable account of events to bring about a defendant’s conviction. If there was a struggle during an arrest, the officer might claim you hit him, or at least deny he hit you. If you were pulled over for a road traffic offence and the officer had no on-board video, he might claim you admitted to something you didn’t say.

Even if it is later shown in court that the police officer’s version of events are palpably untrue, the officer can excuse his statement as an honest mistake or a lapse of memory. Perjury is only made out if the lie was deliberately told.

A police officer who lies in magistrates’ court – where over 95% of all criminal trials are held – is less likely to be caught than if he were to lie in Crown Court. Magistrates are notorious for accepting the prosecution’s versions of events as the default truth, and typically run their courtrooms with the burden of proof reversed, so that it is the defendant who must prove their innocence rather than the prosecution having to prove guilt. Magistrates are in general case hardened toward defendants but many of them possess an almost reverential respect for authority. Seeing them as being incapable of lies, and placing a higher value on their evidence than that of an ordinary member of the public.

If you believe a witness has perjured themselves in Crown Court, then you can apply for a copy of the court transcript to evidence that lie. Not so in magistrates’ court where none of the proceedings are recorded, so the witness is free to deny what was said, and the magistrates are unlikely to remember it. When you take all this into account you can see how difficult – if not impossible – it is to further an allegation of perjury.

State protection
Even if you do have proof that a witness’s lies influenced a court’s decision, getting the authorities to take action can be the biggest hurdle of all.

The police’s reception to allegations of perjury are always lukewarm at best, and if it’s a colleague that’s being accused, then you can expect little else but outright rejection. Those who try to report police perjury can sometimes find themselves threatened with arrest for ‘wasting police time’ or ‘perverting the course of justice’, which is ironic to say the least. Compound this with the police’s unwillingness to be held responsible for an unsafe conviction and you can begin to see the futility of reporting a criminally minded cop to his own kind. 

The only real chance you have of seeing a police officer prosecuted for perjury would be if the magistrate or judge openly admitted in court that the officer had lied while giving evidence. Even then it’s no guarantee that it would trickle down to the relevant prosecuting authorities. Any CPS prosecutor who hears such a remark might be prone to selective deafness and fail to notify the Chief Prosecutors that a criminal offence had, more likely than not, occurred. That would leave you as the defendant, or witness having to do it for them by requesting the court to make a referral of the judge’s or magistrates’ remark to the CCP (Chief Crown Prosecutors). Failing that your only remaining option would be to bring a private prosecution of your own. Although not impossible, you would run the risk of the CPS taking it over and discontinuing it if they don’t like where it was headed.

So, despite the Judiciary’s dim view of those who lie under oath and the severe penalties imposed for doing so, prosecution for perjury remains rarified. Unless your complaint is endorsed by media reports, high profile participants, police whistleblowers or damning evidence then the chances of having a police officer, or any other witness, prosecuted for lying in court is slim to nothing.