Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Toulson,Lord Kerr,Lord Mance,Lord Hodge,Lord Reed,Lady Hale,Lord Neuberger
Judgment Date28 January 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] UKSC 2
Date28 January 2015
CourtSupreme Court
Michael and others (FC)
The Chief Constable of South Wales Police and another

[2015] UKSC 2


Lord Neuberger, President

Lady Hale, Deputy President

Lord Mance

Lord Kerr

Lord Reed

Lord Toulson

Lord Hodge


Hilary Term

On appeal from: [2012] EWCA Civ 981

Appellants Nicholas Bowen QC Duncan Fairgrieve Jude Bunting

(Instructed by Martyn Prowel Solicitors)

Respondents Lord Pannick QC Jeremy Johnson QC

(Instructed by South Wales and Gwent Police Joint Legal Services)

Interveners (1) Refuge (2) Liberty

Interveners Karon Monaghan QC Rajeev Thacker

(Instructed by Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors)

Intervener Cymorth i Ferched Cymru

(Welsh Women's Aid)

Intervener Caoilfhionn Gallagher Conor McCarthy

(Instructed by Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors)

Heard on 28 and 29 July 2014

Lord Toulson

(with whom Lord Neuberger, Lord Mance, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge agree)


This appeal arises from the tragic murder of Joanna Michael by a former partner, which might have been prevented if the police had responded promptly to a 999 call made by Ms Michael. As I explain below, two police forces were involved, Gwent Police and South Wales Police, and there was a lack of effective liaison between them.


The claimants in the action are Ms Michael's parents and her two young children. The defendants are the Chief Constables of Gwent Police and the South Wales Police. The claim is brought for damages for negligence at common law and under the provisions of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1934 (which I will refer to as the common law or negligence claim), and for damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 for breach of the defendants' duties as public authorities to protect Ms Michael's right to life under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which I will refer to as the human rights or article 2 claim). Originally there was also a claim for misfeasance in public office.


The police applied for the claims to be struck out or for summary judgment to be entered in their favour. At first instance His Honour Judge Jarman QC struck out by consent the claim for misfeasance in public office but in a carefully reasoned judgment he refused to strike out or give summary judgment on the negligence and article 2 claims. The Court of Appeal reversed Judge Jarman's decision in part. They held unanimously that there should be summary judgment in favour of the defendants on the negligence claim for reasons given by Longmore LJ, with which Richards and Davis LJJ agreed. The majority upheld Judge Jarman's decision that the article 2 claim should proceed to trial. Davis LJ dissented on that issue. He would have held that on the facts alleged by the claimants there was no possibility that the claim under article 2 could succeed.


The claimants appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal on the negligence claim. The police cross appeal against the decision of the majority of the Court of Appeal on the article 2 claim. Since the court is considering as a matter of law whether the claims have a real possibility of success, it must be assumed for present purposes that all factual allegations made by the claimants are capable of being established. In relation to the negligence claim, the sole question is whether the police owed any duty of care to Ms Michael on the facts as they are alleged. If so, questions about whether there was a breach of duty and its consequences would be matters for the trial.


Ms Michael lived in Cardiff with her two children who were aged seven years and ten months at the date of her death. On 5 August 2009 at 2.29 am Ms Michael dialled 999 from her mobile phone. She lived in the area of the South Wales Police, but the call was picked up by a telephone mast in Gwent and was routed to the Gwent Police call centre. It was received by a civilian call handler. The conversation was recorded and it has been transcribed. Ms Michael said that her ex-boyfriend was aggressive, had just turned up at her house in the middle of the night and had hit her. He had found her with another man. He had taken her car to drive the other man home and had said that when he came back he was going to hit her. She said that he was going to be back "any minute literally".


She was asked by the call handler if she could lock the doors to keep him out. She replied that she could lock the doors, but she did not know what he would do. She did not know if he had a key or how he got into her house.


The next part of the transcript reads:

"… he come back and … he told the guy to get out of the room, and then he bit my ear really hard and it's like all swollen and all bruised at the moment, and he just said 'I'm going to drop him home and (inaudible) [fucking kill you]'."


There is no explanation on the face of the transcript why the last three words are preceded by "(inaudible)" and appear in square brackets; but according to the call handler, who later made a written statement after listening to the recording of the call, at several points there was interference and noise in the background. As to the words in question, she said:

"On listening to the recording I can hear the words 'fucking kill you' being said by Joanna. My understanding is assisted by reading these words in the typed transcript. I had certainly heard and understood her previously when she had said he was going to return and 'hit her'. For periods of time throughout the call I was very distracted. As I explained … all the details were going to have to be retaken by South Wales Police, the call graded and resources deployed from their end not ours … At the time I was distracted and under pressure to redirect the call and my memory is that I did not hear ' kill you'. I don't remember her saying this. I was more concerned at the time with the safety of the other man in the company of the assailant."


The call ended with the call handler telling Ms Michael that her call had come through to Gwent Police and that she would pass the call on to the police in Cardiff. She added "they will want to call you back so please keep your phone free".


The call was graded by Gwent Police as a "G1" call. This meant that it required an immediate response by police officers. Ms Michael's home was no more than five or six minutes' drive from the nearest police station.


The Gwent call handler immediately called South Wales Police and gave an abbreviated version of what Ms Michael had said. No mention was made of a threat to kill. South Wales Police graded the priority of the call as "G2". This meant that officers assigned to the case should respond to the call within 60 minutes.


At 2.43 am Ms Michael again called 999. The call was again received by Gwent Police. Ms Michael was heard to scream and the line went dead.


South Wales Police were immediately informed. Police officers arrived at Ms Michael's address at 2.51 am. They found that she had been brutally attacked. She had been stabbed many times and was dead. Her attacker was soon found and arrested. He subsequently pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Data held by South Wales Police recorded a history of abuse or suspected domestic abuse towards Ms Michael by the same man. On four occasions between September 2007 and April 2009 incidents had been reported to the police and entries had been made on a public protection referral for domestic abuse form, but in two instances the risk indications section of the form was not completed.


The consequences are stark and tragic. Ms Michael has lost her life in the most violent fashion. Her children have lost their mother and breadwinner. Her parents have lost their daughter and have taken on the responsibility and work of bringing up their grandchildren.


An investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission led to a lengthy report. It contained serious criticisms of both police forces for individual and organisational failures.


The court received full written submissions from the appellants, the respondents and three interveners. Liberty and Refuge made joint written submissions. Separate but broadly similar written submissions were made by Cymorth i Ferched Cymru (Welsh Women's Aid). The Court heard oral submissions on behalf of the appellants from Nicholas Bowen QC, on behalf of Liberty and Refuge from Karon Monaghan QC and on behalf of the respondents from Lord Pannick QC.


The arguments raised the following issues:

  • (1) If the police are aware or ought reasonably to be aware of a threat to the life or physical safety of an identifiable person, or member of an identifiable small group, do the police owe to that person a duty under the law of negligence to take reasonable care for their safety?

    I will refer to this as the interveners' liability principle, because it was advanced by Ms Monaghan.

  • (2) Alternatively, if a member of the public (A) furnishes a police officer (B) with apparently credible evidence that a third party whose identity and whereabouts are known presents a specific and imminent threat to his life or physical safety, does B owe to A a duty to take reasonable steps to assess such threat and, if appropriate, take reasonable steps to prevent it being executed?

    I will refer to this for convenience as Lord Bingham's liability principle, because that is how Lord Bingham of Cornhill described it in his dissenting judgment in Smith v Chief Constable of Sussex Police, heard jointly with Van Colle v Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Police [2008] UKHL 50, [2009] 1 AC 225, at para 44. Mr Bowen argued in support of this proposition as an alternative to his principal proposition.

  • (3) On the basis of what was said in the first 999 call, and the circumstances in which it was made,...

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