Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2018] UKSC 4

Facts: In July 2008, the Appellant, then aged 76, was knocked over on a street in the centre of Huddersfield by a group of men. Two of the men were police officers (DS Willan and PC Dhurmea) and the third was a suspected drug dealer (Williams) whom they were attempting to arrest. As the officers struggled with Williams, he backed into the Appellant, who was standing close by. She fell over, and the three men fell on top of her, causing her to be injured. The officers had foreseen that Williams would attempt to escape. They had not noticed that the Appellant was in the immediate vicinity.

What to remember from this judgment:

It is well established that, to succeed in an action for negligence at common law, it is necessary for a claimant to establish that:

  • The defendant owed a duty to the claimant,
  • The defendant breached the duty owed to the claimant,
  • The defendant’s breach of duty caused the claimant to suffer loss, and
  • The loss caused by the defendant’s breach of duty is recoverable.

More importantly, the case answers the first question, is there a duty of care?:

The Court of Appeals applied the three-fold test in Caparo Industries v Dickman [1990] 1 All ER 568, which asks whether:

  • the damage which occurs is foreseeable;
  • there is a sufficiently proximate relationship between the parties; and
  • it is fair, just and reasonable in all the circumstances to impose a duty of care.

However, the proposition that the Caparo test applies to all claims in the modern law of negligence, and that in consequence the court will only impose a duty of care where it considers it fair, just and reasonable to do so on the particular facts, is mistaken. It is normally only in novel cases, where established principles do not provide an answer, that the courts need to exercise judgment that involves consideration of what is “fair, just and reasonable”. This case concerned an application of established principles of the law of negligence and so the existence of a duty of care did not depend on the application of a Caparo test.

Application to the facts: Public authorities, hence police officials 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. The Supreme Court applied its previous jurisprudence in Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police (Refuge and others intervening) [2015] UKSC 2, where it held that the general duty of the police to enforce the criminal law does not carry with it a private law duty towards individual members of the public. Also, the common law does not normally impose liability for omissions, or, more particularly, for a failure to prevent harm caused by the conduct of third parties.

Moreover, the case of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] AC 53 is not authority for the proposition that the police enjoy a general immunity from suit in respect of anything done by them in the course of investigating or preventing crime. The effect of Hill is that the police do not owe a duty of care, in the absence of special circumstances, to protect the public from harm through the performance of their function of investigating crime. Nonetheless, the police being generally under a duty of care to avoid causing personal injury where such a duty would arise according to ordinary principles of the law of negligence. Applying these principles, the police may be under a duty of care to protect an individual from danger of injury which they have themselves created.

Consequently, as the case concerned a positive act and not an omission, the reasonably foreseeable risk of injury to the Appellant when the arrest was attempted was enough to impose a duty of care on the officers. The judge was entitled to find negligence where Willan (one of the police officers) accepted that he was aware of the risk that Williams would attempt to escape and of the risk to members of the public in that event, that he would not have attempted the arrest at a time when he was aware that someone was in harm’s way, and that he had failed to notice the Appellant. The Appellant’s injuries were caused by the officers’ breach of their duty of care; she was injured as a result of being exposed to the danger from which they had a duty of care to protect her.

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