Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Keith of Kinkel,Lord Brandon of Oakbrook,Lord Templeman,Lord Oliver of Aylmerton,Lord Goff of Chieveley
Judgment Date28 April 1988
Judgment citation (vLex)[1988] UKHL J0428-1
Date28 April 1988
CourtHouse of Lords
Hill (Administratrix of the Estate of Jacqueline Hill Deceased) (A.P.)
Chief Constable of West Yorkshire

[1988] UKHL J0428-1

Lord Keith of Kinkel

Lord Brandon of Oakbrook

Lord Templeman

Lord Oliver of Aylmerton

Lord Goff of Chieveley

House of Lords

Lord Keith of Kinkel

My Lords,


In 1975 a man named Peter Sutcliffe embarked upon a terrifying career of violent crime, centred in the metropolitan police area of West Yorkshire. All his victims were young or fairly young women. Between July 1975 and November 1980 he committed 13 murders and eight attempted murders upon such women, the modus operandi in each case being similar. Sutcliffe's last victim was a 20-year-old student called Jacqueline Hill, whom he murdered in Leeds on 17 November 1980. By chance, Sutcliffe was arrested in suspicious circumstances in Sheffield on 2 January 1981, and confessed to the series of murders and attempted murders following interrogation. On 22 May 1981, at the Central Criminal Court, Sutcliffe was convicted of inter alia the murder of Miss Hill.


Miss Hill's mother and sole personal representative now sues the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, claiming on behalf of Miss Hill's estate damages on the ground of negligence, for inter alia loss of expectation of life and pain and suffering. The defendant is sued under section 48(1) of the Police Act 1964, enacting that the chief officer of police for any police area shall be liable in respect of torts committed by constables under his direction and control in the performance or purported performance of their functions. The plaintiff in her statement of claim sets out the 20 offences committed by Sutcliffe before the death of Miss Hill and avers that the circumstances of each of these were such that it was reasonable to infer that all were committed by the same man, and further that it was foreseeable that, if not apprehended, he would commit further offences of the same nature. The pleadings go on to allege that it was accordingly the duty of the defendant and all officers in his police force to use their best endeavours and exercise all reasonable care and skill to apprehend the perpetrator of the crimes and so protect members of the public who might otherwise be his future victims. A substantial number of matters are set out and relied upon as indicating that the West Yorkshire police force failed in that duty. It is unnecessary to set out these matters in detail. They amount broadly to allegations of failure to collate properly information in possession of the force pointing to Sutcliffe as a likely suspect, and of failing to give due weight to certain pieces of information while according excessive importance to others.


The defendant, without delivering defences, applied under R.S.C., Ord. 18, r. 19 to have the statement of claim struck out as disclosing no reasonable cause of action. That application was granted by Sir Neil Lawson, sitting as a judge of the High court, on 19 December 1985. Upon appeal by the plaintiff the Court of Appeal [1988] Q.B. 60 (Fox and Glidewell L.JJ. and Sir Roualeyn Cumming-Bruce), on 19 February 1987, affirmed Sir Neil Lawson. The plaintiff now appeals, with leave given in the Court of Appeal, to your Lordship's House.


In considering whether the statement of claim was rightly struck out it must be assumed that the averments of fact therein contained are true. In particular, it must be assumed that in the course of their investigations into the series of crimes committed by Sutcliffe the West Yorkshire police force made a number of mistakes which they would not have made if they had exercised a reasonable degree of care and skill such as would have been expected to be displayed in the circumstances by an ordinarily competent police force. It must also be assumed, though this is not specifically averred in the statement of claim, that had they exercised that degree of care and skill Sutcliffe would have been apprehended before the date upon which he murdered Miss Hill, with the result that that particular crime would not have been committed.


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.


There is no question that a police officer, like anyone else, may be liable in tort to a person who is injured as a direct result of his acts or omissions. So he may be liable in damages for assault, unlawful arrest, wrongful imprisonment and malicious prosecution, and also for negligence. Instances where liability for negligence has been established are Knightly v. Johns [1982] I W.L.R. 349 and Rigby v. Chief Constable of Northamptonshire [1985] 1 W.L.R. 1242. Further, a police officer may be guilty of a criminal offence if he wilfully fails to perform a duty which he is bound to perform by common law or by statute: Reg. v. Dytham [1979] Q.B. 722, where a constable was convicted of wilful neglect of duty because, being present at the scene of a violent assault resulting in the death of the victim, he had taken no steps to intervene.


By common law police officers owe to the general public a duty to enforce the criminal law: Reg. v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Ex parte Blackburn [1968] 2 Q.B. 118. That duty may be enforced by mandamus, at the instance of one having title to sue. But as that case shows, a chief officer of police has a wide discretion as to the manner in which the duty is discharged. It is for him to decide how available resources should be deployed, whether particular lines of inquiry should or should not be followed and even whether or not certain crimes should be prosecuted. It is only if his decision upon such matters is such as no reasonable chief officer of police would arrive at that someone with an interest to do so may be in a position to have recourse to judicial review. So the common law, while laying upon chief officers of police an obligation to enforce the law, makes no specific requirements as to the manner in which the obligation is to be discharged. That is not a situation where there can readily be inferred an intention of the common law to create a duty towards individual members of the public.


Counsel for the appellant, however, sought to equiparate the situation to that which resulted in liability on the ground of negligence in Anns v. Merton London Borough Council [1978] A.C. 728. There the borough were under a duty, imposed by legislation, to supervise compliance with building bye-laws, in particular as regards the construction of foundations. It was held that though the borough had a discretion whether or not to carry out an inspection of foundations in any particular case, in order to check compliance, once a decision had been made to carry out an inspection the borough owed to future owners and occupiers of the building in question a common law duty to exercise reasonable care in the inspection. In the present case, so it was maintained, the respondent, having decided to investigate the Sutcliffe murders, owed to his potential future victims a duty to do so with reasonable care.


The foundation of the duty of care was said to be reasonable foreseeability of harm to potential future victims if Sutcliffe were not promptly apprehended. Lord Atkin's classic propositions in Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] A.C. 562, 580 were prayed in aid, as was Lord Wilberforce's well-known two stage test of liability in negligence in Anns [1978] A.C. 728, 751, 752.


It has been said almost too frequently to require repetition that foreseeability of likely harm is not in itself a sufficent 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. The nature of the ingredient will be found to vary in a number of different categories of decided cases. In the Anns case there was held to be sufficient proximity of relationship between the borough and future owners and occupiers of a particular building the foundations of which it was decided to inspect, and there was also a close relationship between the borough and the builder who had constructed the foundations.


In Dorset Yacht Co. Ltd. v. Home Office [1970] A.C. 1004, Lord Diplock said of Lord Atkin's proposition:

"Used as a guide to characteristics which will be found to exist in conduct and relationships which give rise to a legal duty of care this aphorism marks a milestone in the modern development of the law of negligence. But misused as a universal it is manifestly false."


Earlier at p. 1058, he had said:

"… the judicial development of the law of negligence rightly proceeds by seeking first to identify the relevant characteristics that are common to the kinds of conduct and relationship between the parties which are involved in the case for decision and the kinds of conduct and relationships which have been held in previous decisions of the courts to give rise to a duty of care."


The Dorset Yacht case dealt with a situation where some Borstal boys, who, having record of previous escapes, were encamped on Brownsea Island under the supervision of prison officers and...

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