With police forces across the country presently buried beneath an avalanche of scandal, it is perhaps a good time to examine the legal duties owed by police officers to protect the public.

Police forces have often been the target of litigation for failure to meet their legal duty, particularly in high stakes situations where lives are on the line. However since Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire 1988 (‘Hill’), in which the mother of the last victim of the Yorkshire ripper pursued the police force after they failed to respond to a call for help from her daughter, it has been thought that the police have an “immunity from suit”.

The Supreme Court noted in Hill that the law relating to the duty of care owed by Police Officers was not entirely clear and often misunderstood. Lord Reed in the majority Judgment explained how the confusion about the law had arisen.

Lord Reed held that the Police generally owe a duty of care when such a duty arises under ordinary principles of the law of negligence, unless statute or the common law provides otherwise. Applying that principle, the Police are usually under a duty of care to protect an individual from a danger which the Police themselves have created (as, for example, om the case where the decision to arrest in a public space was made and a third party is hurt).

Crucially however, Lord Reed stated:-

“…the Police are not normally under a duty of care to protect individuals from a danger of injury which they have not themselves created, including injury caused by the conduct of third parties, in the absence of special circumstances such as an assumption of responsibility”.

One might think that the police have assumed some duty of care for protecting the public, at least from the classic perspective that the police protect and serve particularly those seeking protection from immediate danger. However, in Michael v The Chief Constable of South Wales Police Lord Toulson rejected the arguments that the police owe a duty where:

  • they are aware of a threat to the life of an person; or alternatively,
  • a member of the public gives the police credible evidence that a third party presents a specific and imminent threat to his life or physical.

Lord Toulson said this was because:

  1. the duty would be so wide ranging that it would be difficult to capture,
  2. it may not improve police performance and we wouldn’t want to encourage them to make decisions based on fear of being sued;
  3. it would have potentially significant financial implications for the police and/or public;
  4. These kind off claims are already protected by the European Human Rights Act; and
  5. It should be for Parliament to determine the existence and scope of such a compensatory scheme

Lord Toulson faced considerable dissention from both Lord Kerr and Lady Hale who rightly pointed out that the fundamental principle that people should be entitled to right legal wrongs with litigation outweighed the complete absence of evidence to support the claims of dire consequences if liability was found.

In any case, cases such as PC Wayne Couzens, PC David Carrick and PC Sam Griggs suggest that perhaps the legal focus should be on protecting the public from the police never mind the police’s duty to protect the public from each other.

For further information on this topic or on any other legal area, please contact John Szepietowski or Kay Stewart at Audley Chaucer Solicitors on 01372 303444 or email admin@audleychaucer.com or visit our Linkedin page.

This information is correct as of March 2023


Author John Szepietowski

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