Alternatives to a formal complaint: civil litigation

Private individuals can use the civil law (civil litigation) to try to get a remedy for a harm or wrong done to them by a member of the police force by filing a claim in court

Police officers and their employers (NSW Police) can be sued for actions (called “torts”) that have caused harm or injury of some kind. These can include:

You will require solid evidence to be successful in bringing one of these claims against the police.  This might include having photos, expert reports (for example from a doctor to confirm any harm done) and witnesses who would be able to confirm the action. You must be able to show that on the balance of probabilities, what you claim happened is correct.

It is unwise to bring a claim against the police without first obtaining legal advice. There is a risk that if you lose, you may be liable to pay the legal costs incurred by the State Government in defending the Police Force.

Legal advice may also help you decide whether a court claim or a formal police complaint (or both) is more appropriate for your situation.

Legal advice should be obtained about:

- the particular situation and your chances of success; and

- the pros and cons of pursuing a claim in court.

See: Where to get Legal Advice about Police Behaviour



Civil litigation can be commenced before or after a formal complaint against the police is made, or it may be the only option that is chosen.

There are strict time limits for commencing civil litigation (e.g. 3 years or 6 years after the incident, depending on the situation), so get some legal advice as soon as possible[1].

A claim can be commenced in the Local Court if it is estimated to be worth less than $100,000 or in the District Court if it is a larger claim. There are fees when you file a claim in either of these courts, although you can ask the court to waive these fees in certain circumstances.

Once litigation is commenced, it can take many months, or years in more complex cases.

Why use civil litigation?

Civil litigation can be an effective way to get justice and compensation for the harm suffered.  The court can award payments to people who have had their rights violated by the police.

In response to a question during the 2010 Budget Estimates in the NSW Parliament, the Minister for Police revealed that in 2009-2010:

More broadly, civil litigation can call police officers to account and challenge their conduct. In terms of police accountability, there is the opportunity to bring about change on the part of both individual police officers and the organisation as a whole, if there is a risk they will have to pay legal compensation.  This table provides a summary of the pros and cons of civil litigation, as opposed to a formal complaint.

Further information

Below are some articles and studies relevant to civil litigation against the police.


Examples of civil litigation against NSW Police include:


It is possible to bring a civil claim for damages against a member of the Police force.  However, there are risks involved in taking this step and you should seek legal advice first.

NOTE:  This information sheet provides general information only and should not be relied on for legal advice.  Anyone wishing to make a claim against the police should seek their own independent legal advice.

[1] These torts usually have a time limit of 6 years in which you can take action. However, as section 18A of the Limitation Act  1969 (NSW) limits personal injury damages to 3 years, torts of assault, battery and negligence, which automatically involve an element of personal injury, are now limited to 3 years. In relation to false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, the law is less settled – the recent case of State of NSW v Radford [2010] NSWCA 276 held that an element of damages in false imprisonment actions are related to personal injury, therefore the time limit should be 3 years.

[2] Minister for Police, Michael Dale MP, 2010 Budget Estimates- Part B- Additional Questions on Notice B6, MP David Shoebridge.

[3] Minister for Police, Michael Dale MP, 2010 Budget Estimates- Part B- Additional Questions on Notice B8, MP David Shoebridge.



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