Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2018] UKSC 4 is obviously not a medical law decision, but did see the UK Supreme Court consider principles for judicial establishment of duties of care.

The press summary issued by the Court explains:

The proposition that there is a Caparo test which 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 [21-24]. 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” [27]. 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 [30].

Like other public authorities, in accordance with the general law of tort, the police are subject to liability for causing personal injury [45-48]. On the other hand, as held by the Supreme Court in Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police (Refuge and others intervening) [2015] UKSC 2, 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. 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 [50].
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 [54-55]. The authorities relied on by the respondent [56-66] are not inconsistent with 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 [67-68]. 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 [70].
The present case concerned a positive act, 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 [74]. The judge was entitled to find negligence where Willan 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 [75-78]. 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 [79-80].
Both Lord Mance and Lord Hughes agreed with the majority that the present case concerned a positive act, not an omission, and that the finding of the trial judge on negligence should be restored [82; 122-124]. However, Lord Mance found it unrealistic to suggest that, when recognising and developing an established category of liability, the courts are not influenced by policy considerations [84]. It was not possible to state absolutely that policy considerations may not shape police liability where the conduct of the police may be analysed as positive, rather than simply as involving some form of omission [85-94]. However, he concluded that we should now recognise the direct physical interface between the police and the public, in the course of an arrest placing an innocent passer-by at risk, as falling within a now established area of general police liability for positive negligent conduct which foreseeably and directly inflicts physical injury [97].
Lord Hughes referred to vital policy considerations which impose limits on the duty of care which the police owe to individuals. Such considerations are the ultimate reason why there is no duty of care imposed on police officers engaged in the investigation and prevention of crime towards victims, suspects or witnesses. The greater public good requires the absence of any duty of care [103-120]. In response to these points, Lord Reed emphasised that discussion of policy considerations is not a routine aspect of deciding cases in the law of negligence, and is unnecessary when existing principles provide a clear basis for the decision, as in the present appeal [69].


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