Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police – Supreme Court Judgment

Supreme Court finds that a duty of care was owed to a claimant bystander who was injured when police officers attempted to carry out an arrest, whilst reaffirming the rule that the police do not generally owe a duty of care to prevent harm to members of the public (Jeremy Johnson QC acted for West Yorkshire Police).

The Supreme Court today gave judgment in Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police. The Claimant was a 76 year old woman who had been knocked to the ground when the police attempted to arrest a suspected drug dealer. At first instance the Recorder had found that the officers had been negligent but that police officers engaged in the apprehension of criminals were immune from suit. The Court of Appeal held that no duty of care was owed and that, in any event, the Recorder had been wrong to find that the officers were negligent.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal had erred in considering that Caparo v Dickman applied to all claims in negligence. In the ordinary run of cases, courts determine whether a duty of care is owed on the basis of precedent. In the present case, the question of whether a duty of care existed did not depend on the Caparo test but on the established principles of the law of negligence. Public authorities are subject to the same liabilities in tort as private individuals. Like private individuals they are under no duty to prevent the occurrence of harm even though they may be under a statutory power or duty to enable or require them to prevent the harm in question. They generally owe no duty of care towards individuals to prevent them from being harmed by the conduct of a third party. The circumstances in which a duty may be owed include where the public authority has created a danger of harm which would not otherwise have existed, or has assumed a responsibility for an individual’s safety on which the individual has relied.

In Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, the absence of a duty of care was based on public policy. That decision now needs to be understood in the light of later authorities. The need to have recourse to public policy has been superseded: the absence of a duty in a case such as Hill can be justified on the basis that the omissions principle is a general principle of the law of negligence. Equally, public policy concerns cannot in themselves override a liability which would arise at common law for a positive act carried out in the course of performing a statutory function. The police are subject to liability for causing personal injury in accordance with the general law of tort, but the general duty of the police to enforce the law does not carry with it a private law duty towards individual members of the public.

The present case was concerned with a positive act, not an omission. The reasonably foreseeable risk of injury was sufficient to impose a duty of care on the police towards pedestrians in the immediate vicinity when the arrest was attempted. It was important not to impose unrealistically demanding standards of care on police officers acting in the course of their operational duties, and that a duty to take care can be consistent with exposing individuals to a significant degree of risk. The Recorder had been entitled to find that the failure to notice the Claimant was negligent.

 

The judgment can be found here