POLICE have been forced to scrap costly disciplinary proceedings against a decorated officer who had already been cleared by a jury of beating up a man in a drunken brawl.

Police Constable Paul Bridger is hoping to finally return to work after being suspended for two years while the action was brought against him by Sussex Police.

A misconduct hearing was abandoned on Wednesday after an independent panel accepted arguments that there had been an “abuse of process” against the response officer, and dismissed all the allegations, saying there had been an unreasonable delay in bringing about the action.

The force had previously commended his bravery for chasing and arresting a rape suspect while injured.

But years later he faced a criminal prosecution after being arrested and charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm in 2017.

He was accused of threatening a member of the public during a drunken brawl outside an Eastbourne nightclub while off duty on January 5 that year.

A jury cleared him during a trial a year ago after he insisted he acted in self-defence – an argument he still maintains.

Fellow officer Robert Rangeley was convicted of the same charge after the court heard he attacked Martin Lovett so violently he let out “screams of terror”.

Recorder Kenneth Hamer said 39-year-old Rangeley, a police officer for 16 years, brought “disgrace on the police service”.

He was spared jail but ordered to pay his victim £1,500 in compensation and complete 170 hours of unpaid work.

Despite PC Bridger’s acquittal, the force persisted with disciplinary action against him, claiming he breached professional standards of behaviour amounting to discreditable conduct, the tribunal in Lewes was told.

His lawyers said there had been “substantial delays” and the investigation simply repeated the contents of the trial at which he was acquitted.

Panel chairman Victoria Goodfellow told the hearing the delay in bringing the case had been found to be “substantial” and “considerable” and had a “significant impact” on the officer as well as the memories of witnesses being asked to give evidence.

Relatives of PC Bridger wept with relief when the decision was announced.

The misconduct investigation was launched immediately after the incident but was put on hold so as not to prejudice the trial.

The disciplinary hearing took place almost a year after the jury returned its verdict and two-and-a-half years after the incident.

In that time the force spent thousands on legal advice and buying court transcripts of the trial – a cost which had to be approved by police chiefs because it was so expensive, adding to the delay in the investigation, the hearing was told.

None of the witnesses the force intended to call during the hearing were able to attend because they were not given enough notice.

Mark Cullern, of Sussex Police Federation, said the investigation had a “substantial impact” on PC Bridger’s life, adding: “The current misconduct procedures are clearly not fit for purpose and are being abused up and down the country.”