A tort student’s dream: Supreme Court hears case that could shake up law of negligence

Expect Donoghue v Stevenson, Caparo v Dickman and Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police to get a mention

The highest court in the country is today hearing a case that could change the law of negligence.

Thinking back to your first year tort classes, do you remember the case of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police? A reminder: the case was about a woman called Jacqueline Hill who was the final victim of mass murderer ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’. Jacqueline’s mother, the claimant, sued the police for negligently failing to prevent her daughter’s death.

The House of Lords dismissed the claim, ruling the police are generally immune from negligence claims in respect of their detection and investigation of crime (‘the Hill principle’).

But does this immunity extend to positive actions committed by the police? This is the question Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Reed, Lord Hughes and Lord Hodge will be mulling over today in Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police.

Justices hearing Robinson in courtroom 2 this morning

Robinson, the appellant, is an elderly woman who was knocked over and severely injured in 2008 when she got caught up in the arrest of a suspected drug dealer. In the words of Lady Justice Hallett, who gave the the lead judgment at the Court of Appeal:

There is little, if any, factual dispute… The incident was captured on Closed Circuit Television footage. One can see the appellant walking up the road. Within a very short time of her passing [the suspected drug dealer, Williams] and his group, two well built officers in plain clothes approach, reveal themselves as police and seize hold of him. Unfortunately, Williams then struggles so violently, his momentum takes the group up the street towards the appellant. They knock into her and all fall to the ground with the appellant underneath.

Robinson — who is represented at today’s hearing by Doughty Street Chambers’ Nicholas Bowen QC — has had very limited success in her personal injury claim against the police thus far.

At Huddersfield County Court, Mr Recorder Pimm made a finding of negligence, but dismissed the claim because of the Hill principle. At the Court of Appeal, Hallett and friends overturned the first instance findings of negligence and dismissed the appeal. Now — thanks to Lady Hale, Lord Reed and the late Lord Toulson granting permission to appeal — it’ll be down to the Supreme Court to sort out this mess.

Tort law enthusiasts may be minded to tune in and watch the case. Not only will you see some top-notch advocacy from the Doughty Street team and 5 Essex Court’s Jeremy Johnson QC for the police, the case is set to be a whistlestop tour of tort law highlights. If the appeal court’s judgment is anything to go by, expect mentions of Donoghue v Stevenson, Caparo v Dickman, Hedley Byrne v Heller and many more.

In other Supreme Court news, the justices have today also decided the much-awaited Walker and O’Brien appeals.

Fought tooth and nail by a whole host of QCs, the Walker case considered the law of pensions to civil partners, and the O’Brien case with laws having retrospective effect.

On the first, the court today struck down the restrictions placed on pension rights of civil partners and same sex spouses. It ruled:

Mr Walker’s husband is entitled to a spouse’s pension calculated on all the years of his service with [his employer, Innospec], provided that at the date of Mr Walker’s death, they remain married.

In O’Brien, the court has referred the matter up the juridical ladder to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

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14 Comments

Anonymous

Will the police be held liable, no, the floodgates argument will prevent it, on top of Hill, and that’s assuming the woman even has a case which I’m not sure she does.

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David Stevenson

The issue was already squarely dealt with by Toulson in his brilliant judgment in Michael – the police have no immunity from anything, they are simply not liable for omissions, just like everyone else. The only issue in this case seems to be whether the conduct of the police was an act (in which case there will be a duty, and they will be liable if they were careless) or an omission (in which case they will not be).

Now that Toulson is gone, hopefully Hale won’t stuff things up, and take the law of negligence backwards, which, if her utterly hopeless judgment in Michael is anything to go by, I fear she will.

I suspect the only reason this was granted leave to appeal is because Toulson realised the court of appeal judges had no clue what they were talking about – a brief reading of the CoA judgment would suggest that neither the judges, nor counsel before them, have opened a tort law text since they were in uni.

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Anonymous

We have to realise that public authority is not there to be shot at conversely its not supposed to be untouchable either

Any act could be an omission and vice versa – any reasonable advocate could find cases that would support their own view – at least there is a discussion now whether it results in a positive or negative outcome and indeed that’s dependant on your viewpoint anyway

Always very interesting content in legal cheek thank you

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