Sunday, December 11, 2016

Doctor and his wife win $1m after being tasered by W.A. cops

<i>Sheer thuggery. Catherine Atoms and Robert Cunningham were walking past the Esplanade Hotel at night in November 2008 when they stopped to help a man lying in bushes nearby. Police arrived shortly afterwards and tasered the couple, before handcuffing them and charging them with obstructing a public officer. The charges were later dismissed. The biggest disgrace is that all the watchdogs failed to bark.  It should never have got to court. There clearly is an official culture of protecting the police, right or wrong.  </i>

A law professor and his wife who were yesterday awarded more than $1 million in damages after an unlawful arrest have told how they risked going bankrupt to expose how they were treated by police officers.

Robert Cunningham and Catherine Atoms wept in the District Court yesterday as their eight-year battle resulted in a judge announcing the massive payout.

Judge Felicity Davis found they were assaulted, tasered, unlawfully detained and maliciously prosecuted by police after stopping to help a stranger on a night out in Fremantle in 2008.

But it was a hollow victory, with Ms Atoms’ career as a community engagement consultant in tatters.

She was put into "performance management" in her relatively new job after being charged by police and by the time a magistrate threw the case out 18 months later, she was on her way "out the door".

The bulk of damages — $1.024 million — were awarded to Ms Atoms for loss of earnings and the distress and back injury she suffered, with $110,000 awarded to Dr Cunningham.

Judge Davis told the court that she calculated percentages of liability for individual officers and the State and made an order for "aggravated damages" against one officer, Simon Traynor.

The police were represented by government lawyers and supported by the Police Union, which is considering an appeal.

WA Police Union President George Tilbury said:"The WA Police Union will assess Judge Davis’ reasons when they are published on Thursday, December 15. WAPU will consider the merits of an appeal and continue to support the officers involved".

Outside court, the couple told The Weekend West that they would have been financially devastated by legal costs of the other parties if they had lost the case.

"We would have had to file for bankruptcy, that’s what was on the line for us," Dr Cunningham said.

"We had to sue both the State and the individual who had separate legal counsel, so we would have been subject to two sets of legal costs of an 18-day trial."

Dr Cunningham and Ms Atoms took the action after all of their efforts to hold the officers to account failed — a police internal investigation cleared them of wrongdoing and the Corruption and Crime Commission agreed with the outcome, refusing to instigate its own inquiry despite criticism by its then parliamentary inspector.

"I have a great sadness that the legal system pushes you into dollars and cents when that’s not always what it’s about," Dr Cunningham said.

"We were concerned about the systemic issues and how less privileged people in society may be subject to this type of behaviour by the police on a regular basis and all of the consequences that flow from that.

"People lose faith in the justice system. They lose faith in the good police officers serving our State."

Ms Atoms said she would take no satisfaction from the decision unless it sparked change. "I think it’s important to recognise that a lot of people experience far worse," she said.

"If justice is so out of reach for us, how far out of reach is justice for the broader public?"

Dr Cunningham called for the CCC to finally hold its own investigation of the case.

"From our personal experience, we’ve learnt that unfortunately the CCC does not appear to be fulfilling its mandate of successfully overseeing the activities of the WA Police service," he said.

"Until we have some confidence that this kind of thing is less likely to happen as a result of this, through some sort of systemic review, then we haven’t been fully successful in this action."

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