Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date15 July 1999
Judgment citation (vLex)[1999] UKHL J0715-1
Date15 July 1999
CourtHouse of Lords
Commissioners of Police for the Metropolis
Reeves (A.P.)

(Joint Administratix of the Estate of Martin Lynch, Deceased)


[1999] UKHL J0715-1

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Mackay of Clashfern

Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Hobhouse of Wood-borough



My Lords,


On 23 March 1990 Martin Lynch hanged himself in his cell in Kentish Town Police Station. He had been remanded in custody on charges of credit fraud and was also under investigation for handling stolen vehicles. He had made two previous attempts at suicide. One had been in a cell at Clerkenwell Magistrates' Court three months earlier. The second was in a cell at Brent Magistrates' Court that very morning. On each occasion he had tried to strangle himself with his belt. After the first incident, the police noted on his record that he was a suicide risk. When he was brought back to Kentish Town Police Station after the second incident, he was seen by a doctor. She found no other evidence of mental disturbance but gave instructions that, as a suicide risk, he should be frequently observed. An hour later, at 1.57 p.m., a policeman looked through the open wicket hatch in his cell door and saw that he was lying on his bed. A few minutes later he used his shirt as a ligature to hang himself by pushing it through the wicket hatch and securing it to the door. He was found by another policeman at 2.05 pm. Despite attempts at resuscitation, he died a week later.


The police and prison service have long been aware that prisoners are more than usually likely to attempt suicide or self-injury. In 1994 the Director of Prisons issued an Instruction to Governors (IG 1/1994) which said: "The care of prisoners who are at risk of suicide and self-harm is one of the Prison Service's most vital tasks." The risk of suicide is particularly high among prisoners on remand facing a new environment and an uncertain future. Between 1972 and 1982, 45 per cent. of suicides in prisons were remand prisoners, although they made up only 10-15 per cent. of the prison population (Report by Helen Grindrod Q.C. and Gabriel Black, "Suicides at Leeds Prison: An enquiry into the deaths of five teenagers during 1988/89" ISBN 0903683113 (Howard League for Penal Reform, (1989), p. 5.) As long ago as 1968 the Home Office sent a circular to Chief Constables drawing attention to the need to ensure that fittings in cells should not provide an opportunity for the prisoner to do himself injury. Paragraph 4 said:

"…[W]here cell doors are fitted with a drop-down service hatch, the hatch should not be left open when the cell is occupied by a prisoner. With the hatch open it would be possible for a person inside the cell to secure a ligature on the handle of the hatch." Mr. Lynch did not use the handle. He fastened his shirt through the spyhole above the hatch. But he was able to do so because the hatch had been left open.


The plaintiff in this action is Mrs. Sheila Reeves, who had lived with Mr. Lynch for some years and had a child by him. She sues the Metropolitan Police Commissioner under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for negligently causing Mr. Lynch's death. The trial judge (Judge White) found that having regard to the fact that the police knew that Mr. Lynch was a suicide risk, they owed him a duty to take reasonable care to prevent him from committing suicide while being held in custody. He also found that the police had been negligent and in breach of this duty by failing to shut the wicket hatch after he had been put in the cell. There has been no appeal against these two findings.


The judge found, however, that the breach of duty by the police did not cause Mr. Lynch's death. He was of sound mind and his judgment was not impaired. The sole cause of his death was therefore his deliberate act in killing himself. The judge thought that this result could be expressed in Latin either by the maxim volenti non fit injuria (Mr. Lynch had consented to the injury he received) or by saying that his suicide was a novus actus interveniens. He also gave the Commissioner leave to amend the defence to raise an alternative plea of contributory negligence. On the assumption that the death had been caused partly by the fault of the Commissioner and partly by the fault of Mr. Lynch, he assessed the responsibility of Mr. Lynch in accordance with section 1(1) of the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 at 100 per cent. The judge was also inclined, without deciding the point, to think that the plaintiff's claim should fail on grounds of public policy in accordance with the maxim ex turpi causa non oritur actio. He held that if the action had succeeded, he would have assessed the damages at £8,690.


Mrs. Reeves appealed to the Court of Appeal [1999] Q.B. 169. By a majority, the appeal was allowed. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, C.J. and Buxton L.J. said that, as the police did not deny that they owed Mr. Lynch a duty to take reasonable care to prevent him from committing suicide or that their breach of duty had enabled him to commit suicide, they could not say that their breach of duty was not a cause of his death. "So to hold," said the Lord Chief Justice, at p. 196 "would be to deprive the duty of meaningful content." Morritt L.J. dissented, saying that a deliberate act of suicide by a person of sound mind must negative the causal connection between acts which merely created the opportunity and the subsequent death.


On contributory negligence, there was no clear majority view. Buxton L.J., for reasons to which I shall return, thought that the concept really had no application. The Lord Chief Justice said it did, and would have held the Commissioner and Mr. Lynch responsible in equal shares. Morritt L.J. agreed in principle that contributory negligence could apply but said that the judge was right to assess Mr. Lynch's responsibility at 100 per cent. In order to have some majority judgment on the point, the Lord Chief Justice, while adhering to the view that Mr. Lynch's fault contributed to his death, agreed to assess his share of responsibility at 0 per cent. So the plaintiff recovered the damages in the full amount of £8,690 assessed by the judge.


The Commissioner appeals to your Lordships' House. Mr. Pannick argued two points on his behalf. The first was the question of causation: was the breach of duty by the police a cause of Mr. Lynch's death? The way he put the answer was to say that the deliberate act of suicide, while of sound mind, was a novus actus interveniens which negatived the causal connection between the breach of duty and the death. He said at first that he was going to argue the application of the maxim volenti non fit injuria as a separate point. But when it came down to it, he accepted that if the breach of duty was a cause of the death, he could not succeed on volenti non fit injuria. I think that is right. In the present case, volenti non fit injuria can only mean that Mr. Lynch voluntarily caused his own death to the exclusion of any causal effect on the part of what was done by the police. So I think it all comes to the same thing: was the breach of duty by the police a cause of the death?


The other point argued by Mr. Pannick was contributory negligence. The question of public policy or ex turpi causa non oritur actio, which had not found favour with any member of the Court of Appeal, was not pursued.


On the first question, Mr. Pannick relied upon the general principle stated in Hart and Honoré, Causation in the Law 2nd ed. (1985), at p. 136:

"the free, deliberate and informed act or omission of a human being, intended to exploit the situation created by a defendant, negatives causal connection."


However, as Hart and Honoré also point out, (at pp. 194-204) there is an exception to this undoubted rule in the case in which the law imposes a duty to guard against loss caused by the free, deliberate and informed act of a human being. It would make nonsense of the existence of such a duty if the law were to hold that the occurrence of the very act which ought to have been prevented negatived causal connection between the breach of duty and the loss. This principle has been recently considered by your Lordships' House in Environment Agency (formerly National Rivers Authority) v. Empress Car Co. (Abertillery) Ltd. [1998] 2 W.L.R. 350. In that case, examples are given of cases in which liability has been imposed for causing events which were the immediate consequence of the deliberate acts of third parties but which the defendant had a duty to prevent or take reasonable care to prevent.


Mr. Pannick accepted this principle when the deliberate act was that of a third party. But he said that it was different when it was the act of the plaintiff himself. Deliberately inflicting damage on oneself had to be an act which negatived causal connection with anything which had gone before.


This argument is based upon the sound intuition that there is a difference between protecting people against harm caused to them by third parties and protecting them against harm which they inflict upon themselves. It reflects the individualist philosophy of the common law. People of full age and sound understanding must look after themselves and take responsibility for their actions. This philosophy expresses itself in the fact that duties to safeguard from harm deliberately caused by others are unusual and a duty to protect a person of full understanding from causing harm to himself is very rare indeed. But, once it is admitted that this is the rare case in which such a duty is owed, it seems to me self-contradictory to say that the breach could not have been a cause of the harm because the victim caused it to himself.


Morritt L.J. drew a distinction between a prisoner who...

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