An attempt by ten police officers to block disciplinary action being taken against them for allegedly sharing racist and antisemitic WhatsApp messages has cost Police Scotland nearly £200,000 in legal fees, The Ferret can reveal.
Police Scotland tried to discipline 10 officers for alleged misconduct after two private WhatsApp groups were discovered by a detective constable during an investigation into a serious offence.
The messages were found in group chats on a mobile phone during an inquiry into sexual misconduct complaints against another police officer, not involved in this case, and later cleared.
During the case at the court of session, the messages were described as being “sexist and degrading, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, mocking of disability and included a flagrant disregard for police procedures by posting crime scene photos of current investigations”.
The messages also included pictures of a police shift pattern and a police bulletin.
One group was entitled “Quality Polis” and the other “PC Piggies”. One of the groups had 15 members. The second group had 17 members.
Professional Standards used the messages to bring misconduct charges against the 10 officers, who are not being named for legal reasons, in November 2017.
Their case was taken up by the Scottish Police Federation and Police Scotland was challenged at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
The 10 officers argued they were entitled to privacy under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and this common law right to privacy meant the messages could not be used against them.
But last month three appeal judges, who ruled an earlier hearing correctly found all 10 officers could be subject to Police Scotland disciplinary proceedings, rejected the officers’ arguments.
The court said the onus on the officers to uphold Police Scotland’s rules and protect the public, overrode their right to privacy, and it was proportionate for the force to use the messages.
Following that ruling, The Ferret submitted a Freedom of Information request to Police Scotland, which is funded by the taxpayer, to ask how much its legal fees cost for the case.
Police Scotland’s FOI reply said: “I can advise the legal fees for the case referred to above is £157,805.03 (exc. VAT). Subject to the outcome of any further proceedings, Police Scotland intends to seek an award of expenses in its favour as a result of being successful both in the outer and inner houses of the court of session.”
With VAT added, Police Scotland’s legal bill is £189,366.04.
Police Scotland assistant chief constable Alan Speirs told The Ferret: “Because of their position, our officers are held to higher standards than ordinary members of the public and this is consistently made clear from the first day of training. The inner house judgment underlined that these high standards also apply to the virtual space.”
He added: “The vast majority of our officers conduct themselves in line with our values of fairness, integrity and respect. Where inappropriate conduct is brought to our attention it will be considered by our professional standards department.
“All probationary officers still involved in this long running court action have been placed on restricted duties pending further proceedings.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Police Federation said: “The SPF does not comment on any individual legal cases.”
Scottish Greens justice spokesperson John Finnie said: “Legal appeals are costly and this looks to be a large financial hit on Police Scotland that it really doesn’t need.
“But what is important is that those accused of misconduct are entitled to be defended and that disciplinary action can be taken against police officers who demonstrate discriminatory views.
“Police Scotland must send a clear message that racism and other forms of prejudice has no place in the force.”