High Court confirms police owe a ‘duty of care’ in tragic case
The High Court in Manchester this week upheld an earlier County Court decision in the case of a 37-year-old woman who died from an overdose of prescribed anti-depressants, after a chaotic and delayed police response to a desperate 999 call from her mother. That preliminary issue was defined as being ‘whether a duty of care was owed by Greater Manchester Police to the Deceased’.
Recorder David Berkley QC had handed down the original judgment in October 2016, following which the defendants, Greater Manchester Police (‘GMP’), decided to lodge an appeal with the High Court of Justice Manchester District Registry.
On conclusion of the further hearing, The Honourable Mr Justice King dismissed the appeal and upheld the decision that GMP had owed the deceased a duty of care when significant delays occurred in responding to a 999 call.
This finding is set against a number of appellant decisions where claimants have unsuccessfully pursued police forces and the question of whether the police enjoy blanket immunity from negligence actions has been explored further.
“We welcome the High Court ruling in this distressing case,” says Elaine Prewer of solicitors Attwaters Jameson Hill, acting for the bereaved family.
“This hearing was a preliminary issue to determine whether Greater Manchester Police owed a duty of care on the facts of the case. The case now continues as we seek to establish a breach of that duty and a greater legal accountability on the part of the police after what happened.”
On the afternoon of 29 January 2012, GB was at home. SB, concerned for her daughter’s safety and with reason to fear she might take an overdose, tried to call social services for help.
Getting no response, and being unable to drive to her daughter’s home because of her own ill-health, SB dialled 999 at 6:44pm.
She made clear to the call-handler that GB’s partner had earlier been battling to dissuade her from taking an overdose.
The call-handler took due note of the urgency and gave maximum priority to the case. However, competing priorities and a lack of coordination then led to a series of delays and there was no visit by police officers to the address until about 10:15pm.
Having got no answer and seeing no lights or television on, the officers reported back and a return visit in the morning was agreed. When two other officers entered the home at 8:17am the next day, they found GB lying lifeless.
Inquest verdict: death by misadventure
An Inquest in February 2013 received a detailed account of the tragic events from a report by the former Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The circumstances resulted in the Coroner recording a verdict of death by misadventure.
“The Inquest verdict of death by misadventure rather than suicide reflects that GB may not have intended to take her own life,” Elaine Prewer explains. “Had the police response been timely, she might have survived the overdose and been here today”.
“That was recognised in the following IPCC finding: ‘This was an incident that needed a priority response. It didn’t get one, due to flawed decision-making and a lack of diligence.’
We know that the 999 call-handler assured SB several times that help would be dispatched, but it was not. The emergency call should have been allocated within two minutes and an officer been at the scene within 15 minutes.
Even after downgraded to Grade 2 status by the radio operator and supervisor, a police patrol should have arrived within one hour. Other incidents pushed the call down the list, even though SB had made known she had been unable to raise GB at 7:55pm.
During the next hour, failure to relay that the case was more than just a minor problem meant priority slipped further. This was compounded by officers attending the wrong address before eventually reaching the address after 10pm.
At this stage, failure to read the complete call log and see the reference to suicide risk meant that a final possible opportunity to save a life was missed. And so a family were left bereaved. That should never have happened.”
The High Court Ruling
The key question for the Courts in this case was whether the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police in all the circumstances owed a duty of care to the deceased in relation to the common law claim in negligence.
Mr Johnson (for the Defendants) and Mr Daniels (for the Claimant) agreed that :‘…absent some special feature, no sufficient relationship of proximity exists between a Chief Constable and a member the public who seeks the police’s assistance; the police in the execution of their public duty act for the benefit of the public generally rather than for any individual…’.
In effect, this means that whilst the police force has a duty of care to the public, it does not have a duty of care to individuals, except in very special circumstances.
Further previous decisions have established that there is an exception to this general rule if it could be established on the facts of any given case that the police had assumed responsibility for the care of a particular individual.
The Honourable Mr Justice King provided that ‘it was reasonably open to the Recorder on the basis of the agreed facts and the contents of the 999 call, to find the facts recorded at paragraph 15 of his judgment, namely that the police call handler gave a specific assurance to the Deceased’s Mother in response to what was being communicated by her as an emergency, that police officers would be dispatched forthwith…’.
Big step forward in pursuit of justice
The Honourable Mr Justice King’s judgment has further clarified the extent of the duty of care that police forces have towards members of the public in applying the common law principles of negligence to the particular facts of this case.
“The Court’s judgment is a hugely important step forward in our pursuit of justice, and although the judgment has not created any new principle it does seek to extend the cases where the police ‘assume responsibility’ for members of the public. We now have further work to take this matter forward,” comments Elaine Prewer.
“The family continue to fight for justice in this matter and I remain grateful for Mr Iain Daniel’s of Ely Place Chambers’ guidance and expertise.”
Elaine Prewer recognises that actions against the police form a niche area of law where only a small number of firms offer a service. It is an area that has its challenges, but she remains committed, even if a clear right to sue for negligence may still be some way off.
“Whilst the original finding and that on appeal were very much on the particular facts of this case, they demonstrate that the police do not have a complete immunity with respect to claims based upon negligence and that they can owe members of the public in need a duty of care. The tenacity of Elaine Prewer at Attwaters Jameson Hill in bringing and pursuing this claim has led to an important and interesting decision,” comments Iain Daniels.