Duncan Fairgrieve appears for successful claimant in landmark tort law decision of Supreme Court in Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire.

In an important case on the liability of the police, and public authorities more generally, the UK Supreme Court has held in Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [2018] UKSC 4, that there is no general rule denying liability of the police when discharging their function of preventing and investigating crime and that the police owe a duty of care to avoid causing by a positive act foreseeable personal injury to another person in accordance with the general law of tort. This builds upon the previous decision of the Supreme Court in Michael v South Wales Police [2015] UKSC 2.

Duncan Fairgrieve of 1 Crown Office Row represented the claimant, as part of a team alongside David Lemer and Nicholas Bowen QC of Doughty Street Chambers. They were instructed by Grieves Solicitors. He also appeared in the case of Michael v South Wales Police [2015] UKSC 2.

In this case, Mrs Robinson, an elderly lady in her late 70s, was a passer-by on a busy street in Huddersfield during the attempted arrest by police of a suspected drug dealer, which resulted in Mrs Robinson being knocked to the ground and injured when two policemen and the suspect collided with her during the arrest attempt.

The Supreme Court unanimously found the police liable for the injuries caused to Mrs Robinson. Lord Reed giving the lead judgment dismissed arguments for the defendants that there was a general rule denying liability of the police when discharging their function of preventing and investigating crime, holding that this was a misinterpretation of previous cases. On the contrary, the police owe a duty of care under the ordinary principles of negligence as do other persons, to avoid causing foreseeable personal injury to another person.

In so holding, the Court made important statements of principle on tort law, including the role of the Caparo test in determining the existence of a duty of care. Lord Reed re-affirmed the incremental approach underpinning the decision in Caparo, rejecting robustly the notion that the three-stage Caparo test should apply as a matter of course in all negligence cases. The recent wane in the role of public policy concerns was also confirmed, with Lord Reed holding that such factors should not be a “routine aspect of deciding cases in the law of negligence”, and would only be relevant in determining whether a duty of care should be recognised in a novel situation, when the court would have to consider whether its recognition would be fair, just and reasonable.

A Diceyan approach to the liability of public authorities was underlined by the Court whereby the private law rules of tort apply to public bodies and private persons alike. The omissions principle, which had been applied in a similar sphere in the Michael case, was reaffirmed so that public authorities, like private individuals, are not under a duty of care to prevent the occurrence of harm by the conduct of third parties, other than in exceptional circumstances where the public authority has created a danger of harm, or has assumed a responsibility for an individual’s safety on which the individual has relied.

In the instant case, the injury of Mrs Robinson was found to have been caused by a positive act of the police in deciding to effect the arrest in circumstances in which it was not only reasonably foreseeable but was actually foreseen by the police that the suspect would attempt to resist arrest. That reasonably foreseeable risk of injury was sufficient to impose on the officers a duty of care towards the pedestrians in the immediate vicinity when the arrest was attempted.

The judge at first instance was entitled to have found that on the facts, the police had been negligent. The chain of causation was not interrupted by the suspect’s voluntary decision to resist arrest, as that act was the very one which the defendant was under a duty to guard against. The Chief Constable was thus found liable and the case was remitted for assessment of damages.

Lords Mance and Hughes gave concurring judgments.