New Test for Police Negligence

Robinson (Appellant) v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police (Respondent) [2018] UKSC 4


A plainclothes police officer DS Willan, spotted a Mr. Williams apparently dealing drugs. DS Willan called for back up and three other plainclothes officers soon joined him. Mr Williams entered a shop. They planned to ambush the suspect when he left the shop, with two officers approaching from each direction to arrest Mr. Williams. The street was moderately busy at the time of with both pedestrians and traffic.

Mrs. Robinson was a pedestrian, walking down the street and she passed Williams as police attempted their arrest. The police officers took hold of Williams. The men tussled, and moved towards Mrs Robinson and collided with her. She fell over, and the three men fell on top of her. She was injured.

At first instance the court found that the decision to arrest Williams at the time and place selected by the officers involved a significant risk that Mrs Robinson would be injured and the officers had acted negligently, however Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] conferred on the police immunity against claims in negligence.

On appeal in the Court of Appeal, Ms Robinson was also unsuccessful as the court found that it would be ‘fair just and reasonable’ to impose a duty of care on the officers on the facts presented; that the officers actions were omissions and Williams was ‘first responsible for the harm’. Robinson appealed further to the UK Supreme Court.


Lord Reed, in the leading judgment, held that no single test can be applied in negligence actions and instead the courts should, as Lord Toulson stated in Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police [2015];

“adopt an approach based, in the manner characteristic of the common law, on precedent, and on the development of the law incrementally and by analogy with established authorities.”

In applying that reasoning he agreed that the common law does not generally impose liability for pure omissions and;

“ the general law of tort applies as much to the police as anyone else”

In the UK Supreme Court the court dealt with the question, as to whether the officers owed a duty of care to Mrs. Robinson. The Court considered that there was a key difference between positive acts (a duty will be imposed) and omissions (no duty imposed). The act of arresting someone was a positive act. Where an arrest is negligently performed, the police are liable not only for any injury caused to the person being arrested, but also for any injury that the person who is being arrested causes to another person, so long as that injury is a foreseeable consequence of the police’s positive actions. Where a positive act can be identified, the fact that it relates to a core function of policing will not prevent a duty being imposed.

The damage to Mrs Robinson was not just foreseeable, but it was actually foreseen by the arresting police. The role of the police in the incident was not a to a simple omission, which would not have attracted liability. The officers played an active part in the critical events. It was due to a positive act of the officers, not an omission. There is no general rule that Police are not under any duty of care when discharging their function of preventing and investigating crime. The police are not normally under a duty to protect individuals from a danger of injury which they have not themselves have created, including injury to third parties.

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