Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeLady Hale,Lord Reed,Lord Mance,Lord Hughes,Lord Hodge
Judgment Date08 February 2018
Neutral Citation[2018] UKSC 4
Date08 February 2018

[2018] UKSC 4


Hilary Term

On appeal from: [2014] EWCA Civ 15


Lady Hale

Lord Mance

Lord Reed

Lord Hughes

Lord Hodge

Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police


Nicholas Bowen QC

David Lemer

Duncan Fairgrieve

(Instructed by Grieves Solicitors)


Jeremy Johnson QC

Ian Skelt

(Instructed by West Yorkshire Police Legal Services)

Heard on 12 July 2017

Lord Reed

( with whom Lady Hale and Lord Hodge agree)


On a Tuesday afternoon in July 2008 Mrs Elizabeth Robinson, described by the Recorder as a relatively frail lady then aged 76, was walking along Kirkgate, a shopping street in the centre of Huddersfield, when she was knocked over by a group of men who were struggling with one another. Two of the men were sturdily built police officers, and the third was a suspected drug dealer whom they were attempting to arrest. As they struggled, the men knocked into Mrs Robinson and they all fell to the ground, with Mrs Robinson underneath. She suffered injuries as a result.


The principal question which has to be decided in this appeal is whether the officers owed a duty of care to Mrs Robinson. The other important question is whether, if they did, they were in breach of that duty. Mr Recorder Pimm held that the officers had been negligent, but that police officers engaged in the apprehension of criminals were immune from suit. The Court of Appeal held that no duty of care was owed, and that, even if the officers had owed Mrs Robinson such a duty, they had not acted in breach of it: [2014] EWCA Civ 15.


As will appear, the simple facts of this case have given rise to proceedings raising issues of general importance. Most of those issues can be decided by applying long-established principles of the law of negligence. The fact that the issues have reached this court reflects the extent to which those principles have been eroded in recent times by uncertainty and confusion.

The facts

The events leading to Mrs Robinson's accident began when DS Neil Willan spotted Mr Ashley Williams apparently dealing drugs in a park in the centre of Huddersfield. He did not attempt to arrest Williams immediately, as Williams was young and physically fit, and Willan thought that he was unlikely to be able to arrest him without his running away. He called for backup, and DC Ian Green and DS Damian Roebuck then made their way to join him.


Williams went to a bookmakers on Kirkgate, and Willan followed him inside. He decided not to attempt an arrest inside the shop, as there were people there whom he recognised, and he was concerned that attempting an arrest would endanger both his own safety and that of the customers and staff. Williams then left the shop and stood outside it. Green and Roebuck then arrived, and another officer, PC Dhurmea, arrived soon afterwards. Like Willan, they were in plain clothes.


Willan and Roebuck formed a plan to arrest Williams while he was standing outside the bookmakers. The plan involved Willan and Dhurmea approaching Williams from one direction, taking hold of him and effecting the arrest, while Roebuck and Green were positioned in the opposite direction, to prevent his escape and assist once Willan and Dhurmea had taken hold of him. Willan and Dhurmea positioned themselves up the street from the bookmakers, while Green and Roebuck took up a position some distance down the street. Kirkgate was moderately busy at the time with pedestrians and traffic. Mrs Robinson was one of a number of pedestrians walking along the pavement. She passed Willan and Dhurmea, and then Williams, very shortly after two other pedestrians.


Almost immediately after she passed Williams, and when she was within a yard of him, Willan and Dhurmea approached him. Mrs Robinson was then in their line of sight. The officers took hold of Williams and attempted to arrest him. Williams resisted arrest. As the men tussled, they moved towards Mrs Robinson and collided with her. The initial contact was between her and Williams, who backed into her. She fell over, and the men fell on top of her. Roebuck and Green arrived three seconds later and assisted in arresting Williams.

The proceedings before the Recorder

Mrs Robinson issued proceedings for damages for personal injury, on the basis first of the negligence of the officers, and secondly assault and trespass to the person occasioned by DS Willan. The latter aspect of the claim is no longer in issue. Following a hearing on liability, the Recorder dismissed the claim.


In relation to the facts, the Recorder relied on CCTV footage of the incident, together with the evidence of DS Willan, DS Roebuck and DC Green concerning the planning of the arrest. He accepted Willan's evidence that the officers had identified the risk that Williams would try to run away, and regarded it as significant. Willan also said that he was aware of the potential for harm to members of the public if Williams tried to escape. His evidence was that in any situation it was necessary to consider the risk to those in the vicinity. He said that if it had appeared to him that someone was in harm's way, he would have walked past Williams without effecting the arrest. The Recorder noted that that was in accordance with the risk assessment guidance provided to police officers in relation to arrests in drugs cases, to which he had been referred in the evidence. Willan said that he had not been aware of Mrs Robinson's presence when he attempted to arrest Williams.


Willan also gave evidence that there was some urgency in effecting the arrest. He had seen Williams taking the drugs from a bag secured around his neck. It was important to arrest him while he still had drugs in his possession. Without the drugs, there was unlikely to be sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.


DS Roebuck said that it had taken him and DC Green about three seconds to get from the place where they had taken up position prior to the attempted arrest to the scene where the other three men were on top of Mrs Robinson. He said that suspects like Williams could have recognised them as police officers if they had been any closer. The Recorder did not accept that evidence, which was unsupported by any other evidence. As far as appeared from the evidence, Roebuck and Green would, he found, just have been two men walking along the street.


In the light of the evidence, the Recorder found that the decision to arrest Williams at the time and place selected by the officers involved a foreseeable risk that Mrs Robinson would be injured. She was in very close proximity to Williams at that moment, she was an elderly lady, and there was a significant and foreseeable risk that he would try to escape.


In the view of the Recorder, the officers had acted negligently. First, Willan accepted that he ought to have been taking care for the safety of members of the public in the vicinity. Although Mrs Robinson had just walked past Williams and was within a yard of him, Willan did not notice her. That was prima facie in breach of his duty of care. Secondly, in view of the known risk that Williams would try to escape, the officers could have waited and selected a safer opportunity to effect the arrest. Thirdly, there was a clear need for all four officers to be present if the arrest was to be carried out safely with pedestrians passing. Roebuck and Green had however been too far away to assist their colleagues until several seconds had passed. The risk could have been minimised if they had been closer at the time when the arrest was attempted.


The Recorder held, however, that the decision in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] AC 53 had conferred on the police an immunity against claims in negligence. In the light of the decision of the Court of Appeal in Desmond v Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police [2011] EWCA Civ 3; [2011] PTSR 1369, that immunity was not confined to cases of omission. It therefore applied in the present case.

The proceedings in the Court of Appeal

In the Court of Appeal, Hallett LJ considered that “the Caparo test [ Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605, 617–618] applies to all claims in the modern law of negligence” (para 40). In consequence, “[t]he court will only impose a duty where it considers it right to do so on the facts” (ibid). The general principle was that “most claims against the police in negligence for their acts and omissions in the course of investigating and suppressing crime and apprehending offenders will fail the third stage of the Caparo test” (para 46). That is to say, “[i]t will not be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty” (ibid). That is because “the courts have concluded that the interests of the public will not be best served by imposing a duty [on] to individuals” (ibid). The answer to counsel's rhetorical question, what would the public think if the police, in the process of arresting criminals, could injure innocent members of the public with impunity, was that “provided the police act within reason, the public would prefer to see them doing their job and taking drug dealers off the street” (para 47). One might observe that if the police are not under a duty of care, then it is irrelevant to the issue whether they act within reason or not. On the other hand, if they act with reasonable care, then they will not be in breach of a duty of care, even if an innocent member of the public is injured.


Hallett LJ accepted that the authorities suggested that there might be a number of possible exceptions to the general principle: cases of outrageous negligence, cases which did not relate to core functions, and cases where police officers had assumed responsibility for a claimant. The present case did not fall into any of those categories. It was “a paradigm example of why the courts...

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