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

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By Katie King on

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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