What You Should Know About Police Negligence Claims


Photo of Daniel Fitzsimmons, a Chartered Legal Executive who explains the law in police negliigence claims.

Daniel Fitzsimmons explains the law in police negligence claims here.

By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive

Before reading this blog post, please note our terms and conditions. In particular, you should be aware that nothing here constitutes legal advice. Contact me or my colleagues directly for that.

I have over 15 years’ experience helping clients with their civil actions against the police. I use my knowledge to help my colleagues in our New Enquiries Team review the thousands of requests for representation we get every year.

In recent months we have noticed an increase in requests for help in police negligence claims involving the investigation and suppression of crime. Some of these enquiries include cases where the police failed to:

  • take action in a neighbour dispute for alleged criminal damage and death threats
  • take a witness statement in a dog-bite case
  • prepare a witness to give evidence in court.

Other enquiries we have received include complaints that the police:

  • refused to refer a case to the CPS for prosecution
  • mishandled investigations (for example, where the police failed to take witness statements in an abuse case resulting in a hung jury, and where they did not fully investigate historical sexual abuse)
  • ignored, offended or hurt someone’s feelings (for example, treating a passenger in a car accident like a suspect)
  • gave incorrect information to others, like the CICA, local authorities, DVLA, and other government bodies
  • and many more.

Unfortunately, we can’t help with these kinds of cases. This is why.

What are Police Negligence Claims?

Our website page: the law in civil actions against the police explains that, to claim against the police in negligence, the Claimant must prove:

  1. that a legal duty of care is owed by the Defendant to the Claimant;
  2. the Defendant breached that duty;
  3. that the Claimant suffered recoverable damage as a result of the breach; and
  4. the damage (or that kind of damage) was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the negligent conduct.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to negligence than arguing simple human error or failing to do a job properly. Among other things, proving a legal “duty of care” between the parties is essential.

How are Negligence Claims Against the Police Different to Other Areas of Law?

Often, proving the four “heads” of negligence in compensation claims (such as road accident cases involving a rear-end shunt) is straightforward. But negligence claims against the police are a different animal entirely.

This is because, in most cases, the police are protected by the civil law from negligence claims involving the investigation and suppression of crime.

What Is the Investigation and Suppression of Crime?

Uniquely, the police (and other State intelligence and law enforcement agencies) are tasked with the investigation and suppression of crime. This is broadly defined as steps the police take to prevent crimes occurring.

How the Courts Handle Negligence Claims Against the Police

The police’s job of Investigating and suppressing crime was considered by the House of Lords in the case of Doreen Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (1987). Hill is still good law and regularly relied upon by the police, despite being over 30 years’ old.

In that case the Law Lords considered if Jacqueline Hill’s mother, Doreen, could bring an action against West Yorkshire Police in negligence. Miss Hill was the last victim of Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper”. Between 1975 and 1980 Sutcliffe murdered 13 women (including Miss Hill) and attempted to kill eight more.

How the House of Lords Viewed the Hill Negligence Case

The lead Judge, Lord Keith of Kinkel, summarised Mrs Hill’s police negligence claim by saying:

The question of law which is opened up by the case is whether the individual members of a police force, in the course of carrying out their functions of controlling and keeping down the incidence of crime, owe a duty of care to individual members of  the public who may suffer injury to person or property through the activities of criminals, such as to result in liability in damages, on the ground of negligence, to anyone who suffers such injury by reason of breach of that duty.

(my emphasis in bold here and throughout)

Did West Yorkshire Police owe Jacqueline Hill a Duty of Care?

The duty of care issue was front-of-mind for the judges deciding Mrs Hill’s case. This is because, without it, her negligence claim against the police failed at the first hurdle, as I explained above.

When considering if a duty of care existed, Lord Keith focused on the fact that:

It has been said almost too frequently to require repetition that foreseeability of likely harm is not in itself a sufficient test of liability in negligence. Some further ingredient is invariably needed to establish the requisite proximity of relationship between plaintiff and defendant, and all the circumstances of the case must be carefully considered and analysed in order to ascertain whether such an ingredient is present.

After reviewing the circumstances, the Judge determined that Mrs Hill could not prove the required “proximity of relationship” between her daughter and West Yorkshire Police.

This was because, among other reasons, Jacqueline Hill was:

  • not within a special class of people to whom the police owed a duty of care
  • merely one member of the general public who might be at risk
  • not especially vulnerable to Sutcliffe’s “activities” even though she was young and female.

Public Policy Considerations

Mrs Hill’s claim failed because she could not prove that West Yorkshire Police owed her daughter a duty of care.

Lord Keith could have stopped there.

Instead, he went on to offer another reason why police negligence claims which involve the failure to investigate and suppress crime fail: public policy.

In his view, the additional burden of second-guessing police activities like the investigation and suppression of crime was too high because:

  1. chief officers have “a wide discretion as to the manner in which the duty [to enforce the criminal law] is discharged” and that the courts are not equipped to consider these “matters of policy and discretion”.
  2. it might make police officers act “in a detrimentally defensive frame of mind”
  3. police forces would have to spend time and resources dealing with negligence claims, instead of fighting crime.

The Judge said:

The general sense of public duty which motivates police forces is unlikely to be appreciably reinforced by the imposition of such liability [in negligence] so far as concerns their function in the investigation and suppression of crime. From time to time they make mistakes in the exercise of that function, but it is not to be doubted that they apply their best endeavours to the performance of it.

This public policy point matters because it helps the police defend cases involving the investigation and suppression of crime in many different circumstances.

Why Operational Acts or Omissions CAN Result in Negligence Claims Against the Police

Despite finding against Mrs Hill in her claim, Lord Keith noted that compensation claims against the police can still be brought in negligence where, for example, a person is injured as a direct result of an officer’s operational acts or omissions. (A good example would be where an officer drives negligently and causes a road traffic accident.)

But the Judge made a clear distinction between these kinds of acts or omissions (which can be compensated if proven), and those involved in the investigation and suppression of crime (for which the police have broad “immunity from suit”).

How The Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police Case Affects Claimants

The Hill case set down a marker.

Generally, people cannot bring negligence claims against the police for failings in the investigation and suppression of crime.

This legal protection is why we cannot help with such claims.

But it is important to note that the public can sue the police for other acts or omissions.

This is how we help victims of police misconduct bring compensation claims for false imprisonment, assault, malicious prosecution, and other claims. (Read why on our page: The Law in Civil Actions Against the Police.)

Other Grounds for Civil Claims Against the Police

And, as my colleague Kevin Donoghue noted in his blog post: How to Hold the Police Accountable for Human Error, negligence is just one potential head of claim. Victims of police misconduct might be able to claim compensation for other things, such as breaches of statutory and common laws, including:

  • Equality Act 2010
  • Human Rights Act 1998
  • Breach of confidence
  • Data Protection Act 2018
  • Defamation
  • Wrongful interference with goods
  • Breach of statutory duty
  • Maliciously obtaining search of arrest warrants
  • and others.

Claims like this have their own rules, time limits, and issues. Contact me or my colleagues if you think you may be eligible for compensation. Although we do not offer legal aid, we may be able to help you on a “no win no fee” basis. And please note that, even though you may have an arguable right of action in law, we still might not be able to help. Read this blog post by my colleague Kevin Donoghue to find out why.

Daniel Fitzsimmons is a Chartered Legal Executive at Donoghue Solicitors. He leads the New Enquiries Team and reviews requests from people seeking expert legal help in suing the police. Read more about him here.