Misconduct in public office – unclear, ambiguous and in need of reform

More people than ever before are being accused of misconduct in public office, and recent years have seen a number of high-profile allegations, investigations and prosecutions of the offence. But the existing law does not clearly define either what is meant by “misconduct” or who holds “public office”. It is unclear, ambiguous and in need of reform.

In a consultation opening today, we suggest that a new, clear statutory offence would remove ambiguity and offer a solution to the problems with the existing law. We propose two forms such an offence might take and ask consultees whether either or both should be taken forward into legislation.

Our consultation paper explores options for setting out a more rigorous definition of public office and asks consultees how that might be reflected in statute.

Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC said:

“It is vital that the public have confidence in their public officials and in the legal framework that sets the boundaries of their conduct. The offence of misconduct in public office is increasingly being used to bring public officials to account but recent high-profile investigations and prosecutions have brought the problems with this offence into sharp focus.

“The existing law relating to misconduct in public office is unclear in a number of fundamental respects. There is urgent need for reform to bring clarity and certainty and ensure that public officials are appropriately held to account for misconduct committed in connection with their official duties.”