Tragic case brings challenge to police immunity
A landmark County Court ruling in Manchester, in favour of a Deceased mother's family, has pointed the way ahead in a legal battle to bring an end to the longstanding limitations on establishing police forces' liability in claims of negligence.
Recorder David Berkley QC handed down the judgment on Monday, in the case of a 37-year-old woman who died from an overdose of prescribed anti-depressants after a chaotic police response to a desperate 999 call from her mother.
“This was a heartbreaking case,” says Elaine Prewer of solicitors Attwaters Jameson Hill, acting for the bereaved family. “The victim Georgina Beevers’ four-year-old son was found alone with her, when the police eventually attended after she had lain motionless overnight at her home near Manchester.
“At the centre of this tragedy is a question mark over the series of delays before Greater Manchester Police officers finally gained entry to Georgina’s home in Stockport the morning after her mother in Wythenshawe had made a 999 call at 6.44pm the night before, fearing for her safety.
“It has taken almost five years for Georgina’s family to reach this stage in the legal process. I am in awe of their determination to achieve greater legal accountability on the part of the police.”
On the afternoon of 29 January 2012, Georgina Beevers was involved in a disagreement with her eight-year-old son. This led her partner, Paul Sherratt, to decide to take the boy to his own mother’s home to help calm the situation, leaving Georgina with her four-year-old son.
Sheila Beevers, fearing for her daughter’s safety, 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, Sheila dialled 999 at 6.44pm. She made clear to the call-handler that Georgina’s partner had 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 Georgina’s 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 Georgina lying lifeless and her younger son present.
Inquest verdict: death by misadventure
An Inquest in February 2013 received a detailed account of the tragic events from a report by the 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 Georgina 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.’ Except in policing, this would surely amount to actionable negligence.
“We know that the 999 call-handler assured Sheila 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 downgrade 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 Sheila had made known she had been unable to raise Georgina at 7.55pm.
“During the next hour, failure to relay that the case was more than just a problem with a young child’s behaviour meant priority slipped further. This was compounded by officers attending the wrong address before eventually reaching Georgina’s home 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 Georgina’s life was missed. So Georgina’s three young children, her partner and her mother were left bereaved. That should never have happened.”
In the wake of the IPCC report and Inquest into Georgina Beevers’ untimely death, her family were further shocked to find that the law did not readily permit civil action for negligence against Greater Manchester Police or any other force.
The family’s solicitors found that the legal ground had been tested in earlier cases, notably that of Osman in 1998, where Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights was invoked and brought changes to police practices.
A case more recent than Osman was that of Cardiff woman Joanna Michael, who died in 2009 from a frenzied knife attack despite a 999 call about a credible death threat, which was mishandled by two adjacent police forces. That went to the Supreme Court earlier this year.
This week’s Court judgment
The key question for the Court in the case of Georgina Beevers 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.
In the ‘Legal Issues to be Determined’ section of his ruling, the Recorder said: “Merely by answering a 999 call the relevant service does not assume responsibility. Even by attending upon a call the relevant service does not assume responsibility.”
Crucially, the Recorder added: “In order to assume responsibility something more is required to establish a relationship of proximity and that additional component could be an assurance upon which detrimental reliance has been placed.”
The Court compared this case and a precedent case that involved the duty of care on the part of an ambulance service, and the Recorder indicated: “In both cases (on my findings) assurances were given to [that] third party and detrimental reliance occurred.
“Mr Johnson [for the Defendant] forcefully maintains that no duty of care could arise in the present case, because any assurance was given to the Mother and not to the Deceased and any reliance was that of the Mother and not that of the Deceased.
“Despite Mr. Johnson’s detailed written submissions, I am satisfied that there was a sufficient degree of proximity between the Chief Constable and the Deceased which created the relationship upon which the duty could arise.”
Taking account of all the circumstances of the case and considering precedent cases and representations from both sides, the Recorder concluded: “For the reasons stated, I find that by the time the 999 call had concluded, a duty of care was owed by the Defendant to the Deceased.”
Huge step forward in pursuit of justice
“The Court’s judgment is a hugely important step forward in our pursuit of justice in this case, even though the Recorder made clear that this judgment has not created any new principle,” Elaine Prewer asserts.
“The case of Georgina Beevers has already made a valuable contribution to clarifying the extent of the duty of care that police forces have towards both the general public and individuals,” Elaine Prewer adds. “We now have further work to take this matter forward.
“I must praise the courage of Georgina’s family in persevering with this for her and her children, and the expert support Attwaters Jameson Hill have had from barrister Iain Daniels of Ely Place Chambers in pursuit of justice in this difficult and disturbing case.”
Elaine Prewer sees this case as a crucial test of the law that is very much in the public interest. Her firm’s tenacity in this instance is, she says, driven by its determined focus on its clients and on others who may become victims of serious avoidable incidents.
She 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 is not about to shy away, even if a clear right to sue for negligence may still be some way off.
“I was pleased to be instructed by Attwaters Jameson Hill in this case which raised important issues concerning the legal responsibilities of police forces to members of the public in need of their help,” comments Iain Daniels. “The civil courts should have an important role to play in police accountability and in this case, establishing that Greater Manchester Police have a duty to assist a distressed young woman helps to promote best practice across all forces.“