An acrimonious row between the chief of the West’s largest police force and the newly-elected police commissioner showed no sign of ending last night after Colin Port’s case against Sue Mountstevens was thrown out by a High Court judge.
Mr Port, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, was taking legal action against Mrs Mountstevens, the force’s first police and crime commissioner (PCC), demanding he be allowed to serve out six months’ notice. He also wants the recruitment process to find his successor, due to begin tomorrow, to be halted.
But after hearing details of the first meeting between the two which turned into a “blazing row” and led Mr Port to announce he was leaving his job, Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart ruled Mrs Mountstevens had not broken any rules, and dismissed Mr Port’s request to hear the case in full.
The deposed chief constable declared he was not giving up easily, said he had lost the case on a “technicality” and was now considering an appeal.
The scenes at the High Court in London were in stark contrast to announcements and press conferences yesterday of the smooth recruitment of two chief constables in the neighbouring forces of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, where new PCCs became the first in the country to enact their powers to hire a police chief.
The High Court heard that in a meeting between Mr Port and Mrs Mountstevens, six days after her victory in the PCC elections in November, the successful independent candidate announced she wanted to recruit a chief constable to serve for five years. Mr Port, who at 58 could only serve for another two years, was left feeling “shocked and humiliated” when Mrs Mountstevens raised her voice and “banged her hand on the table” during the meeting, it was claimed.
His counsel, Mike O'Brien QC, said Mr Port, 58, had enjoyed an exemplary police career and, when he went to the November 21 meeting, was confident of forming a good relationship with Ms Mountstevens and having his appointment confirmed for up to another two years.
She denied asking him to quit, insisting he ‘resigned unilaterally’, but Mr Port’s case was that she forced him out and therefore he was entitled to six months’ notice to the end of his contract.
“Mr Port has done extraordinarily well; his record speaks for itself,” said Mr O’Brien. “He went into the meeting in a very positive way but came out feeling shocked and humiliated.”
Mr Port was ‘presented with a fait accompli’ after Ms Mountstevens ‘made it clear she wanted his job’ and that she ‘wanted a vacancy to fill’, claimed the barrister, who added: “She had just been sworn in and she decided to assert her authority over the chief constable.”
The court heard Mr Port ‘walked out’ of the meeting and shortly afterwards emailed his officers to tell them he was leaving the force and would not be re-applying for the chief constable’s job.
Despite finding in her favour, the judge said Mrs Mountstevens was responsible for the pair’s relationship breakdown and said he was sorry to see Mr Port’s ‘outstanding career’ end in such unhappy circumstances.
Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart said she had not acted unlawfully and said Mr Port had not been entitled to six months’ notice. The judge said halting interviews would “damage” the force and said the application process should run its course. But he said there was no dispute that Mr Port had been a “successful and highly effective” chief constable and said he had not reached his conclusions on the case with “any great enthusiasm”.
And he said Mr Port was not to blame for the breakdown of the relationship with Mrs Mountstevens.
“Mr Port went into that meeting on the 21st November in the spirit of hope and confidence and emerged 30 minutes later very shaken and with his confidence in the police and crime commissioner significantly damaged,” said Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart. “Whether she intended the meeting to have the consequences that it did or whether she just mishandled it probably doesn’t matter for the purposes of this hearing.
“She, I am sorry to say, was responsible for the breakdown in the relationship which really occurred from the outset between her and the chief constable.”
The judge added: “I am extremely sorry that Mr Port’s outstanding career has ended in such an unhappy way.”
After the hearing, Mrs Mountstevens said recruiting a new chief constable was her priority. “The High Court has confirmed that the Police and Crime Commissioner's decisions were lawful in every respect,” said her spokesman. “The Judge rejected Mr Port's complaints in law, found that they were not even arguable and dismissed the case. Costs were awarded against Mr Port.
“We are going ahead with the process to recruit a Chief Constable and we are holding our interviews this week to appoint the best candidate for Avon and Somerset. Colin Port has served the constabulary and the communities of Avon and Somerset with distinction and we wish him every success in the future,” she added.
Mr Port though, showed no signs of giving up yesterday evening.
“This was never just about me. This was about the position of all chief constables,” Mr Port said in a statement.
We lost today on a technicality and we are now considering an appeal.
“The judge made it clear it was the conduct of the police and crime commissioner at our meeting on November 21 which led to the breakdown in our relationship.
“It was a meeting she arranged and had conduct of.
“Whether she intended or mishandled that meeting the Judge said, she holds responsibility for the breakdown of our relationship.
“I am now in conference with my lawyers. My focus and my interest has always been for the police and public of Avon and Somerset.”