In today’s society it sometimes feels as though a person can make a claim for anything. Everywhere you look there are advertisements telling you to make a claim for medical negligence, PPI, road traffic accidents, and so on. Even flight delays can now result in financial compensation now.
Thus, it strikes me as particularly odd that in a society where professionals and public services are frequently held liable for their negligent actions; the police are protected from such claims by a proverbial ‘legal shield’.
This is the current situation though; and it does not seem set to change.
The decision taken by the Supreme Court in a very recent case, regarding the actions of the Police in the murder of Joanna Michael, underlined a long-standing legal principle. In short, this principle determines that the police can not be sued for negligence due to their ‘special’ position in public service and under the law.
The recent case had been brought before the Supreme Court by the family of Joanna Michael who was murdered in 2009 by her ex-partner, Cyron Williams. Prior to their separation, the relationship between Ms Michael and Mr Williams had been a volatile one. Ms Michael was at home in Cardiff with her current partner in August 2009, when Mr Williams broke in. He bit her ear, threatened to kill her, and bundled her new partner out of the house into his car. Ms Michael called 999 from her mobile.
Her call was unfortunately transferred to the incorrect control room and instead of being routed to South Wales Police; Ms Michael was connected to Gwent Police, a nearby police force. Ms Michael informed the 999 centre of the incident but by the time officers were dispatched from South Wales Police, her call had been downgraded in priority; allowing the officers an hour to get to the scene.
In the meantime, Mr Williams returned to the house around 15 minutes after Ms Michael’s first 999 call ended. She called 999 for a second time and Gwent’s control room heard her screams as she was stabbed to death.
Mr Williams is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of the 25 year old mother of two.
Following an investigation into the failures of both Gwent Police and South Wales Police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) ruled that Ms Michael had been failed by both forces. Both Gwent Police and South Wales Police have apologised for their mistakes and failures but remain immune from a claim for damages arising from their negligence. Damages, which could have assisted in the financial support of Ms Michael’s two children.
The immunity and protection of the police stems from a claim made by the mother of the Yorkshire Ripper’s final victim. Jacqueline Hill’s mother attempted to sue West Yorkshire Police for the failures and mistakes made by the detectives assigned to the case. She argued that her daughter would have still been alive if the investigation had been conducted properly and detectives had followed up the existing clues. The case went before the House of Lords 1988. It was established that the police could not be held liable purely because it was in the public interest to protect them from such claims.
Put simply, the police would be unable to properly go about their duties if they were constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’ and concerned about being sued for negligence.
The concern would be that Chief Constables would turn their focus away from trying the best for the community, and plug all of their resources into tactics and manoeuvres designed to avoid such claims.
I understand what you, the reader, are most likely thinking.
The principle, arising from the 1988 judgement, was not reviewed again until the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights in a case known as Osman in 1998. Mr Osman was murdered by his son’s ex-teacher. It was effectively proved that in this case, the Metropolitan Police force had breached Mr Osman’s right to life as they had failed to act on a substantial amount of information that would have allowed the force to deal with the threat and could have prevented Mr Osman’s killing.
This case did have a significant effect on police forces nationwide. A complex methodology was developed to appropriately assess risks. Forces will even send formal letters, also know as Osman Warnings, to those who they suspect face a risk to their life.
The law around Osman only goes so far, and the Judgement in the Michael case makes that very clear.
Lord Toulson, who gave the lead Judgment, confirmed that the law remains clear that the only person who is to blame for the harm is the person who caused it. He also confirmed that even if the police were reasonably aware of a threat to life that does not mean that they have an immediate duty of care to that specific person that overrides their other duties.
Two of the seven Supreme Court Judges disagreed. Lord Kerr stated;
“If the police had not negligently downgraded the urgency of Ms Michael’s call… it is probable that she would still be alive”
Lord Kerr, Lady Hale, and (separately) the late Lord Bingham have each argued that the police ought to be held liable for their failures in some cases. It may be that the door has not completely closed on such claims in future.
Joanna Michael’s family have had a very small victory in that they can still claim under the Human Rights Act for a breach of a right to life. However, this will not lead to a great deal of compensation.
For now, as it stands, the police remain protected from claims arising from their failures.