The case of Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  dramatically altered the way in which the public can hold the police accountable. Before this ruling the circumstances whereby the police would owe a duty of care to members of the public, and therefore be liable for damages in the event of accidental injury, were severely limited.
On a summer afternoon an elderly woman, 76 years of age, was knocked down by three men as she walked through Huddersfield city centre. Four police officers had coordinated the arrest of a suspected drug dealer on a busy street in Huddersfield. The three men who knocked into Mrs Robinson consisted of two of the police officers and the suspected drug dealer, a Mr Williams. During the arrest the two police officers struggled with Mr Williams causing him to fall into Mrs Robinson and pushing her to the ground; they then fell on top of her, causing serious injuries as a result. Lawyers representing Mrs Robinson issued proceedings against West Yorkshire Police for the personal injury she sustained contending that it had been caused by the police officers’ negligent conduct.
The legal representatives bringing the case on behalf of Mrs Robinson sought to determine that the police had been negligent in their planning and execution of the arrest of Mr Williams in that the police owed a duty of care to Mrs Robinson, and to other members of the public, and that the police had failed in this duty.
The Analysis in the Courts
The judge that heard the initial case agreed that the officers were indeed negligent, as they had foreseen that the suspect would try to resist and that there was a potential risk of injury to bystanders. Yet they proceeded with the arrest without looking for bystanders, or if they had looked, not noticed Mrs Robinson. However, the judge ruled that the case of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  gave police officers immunity from negligence claims when acting in the course of their operational duties, and so found against Mrs Robinson.
Mrs Robinson then appealed the judgment to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal found that most accusations against the police, arising through the exercise of the police’s “core function”, would fail on the basis of application of the third stage of the Capro Test (Caparo vs Dickman, ) assessing whether it would not be “fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care” on the Police when going about their core function, specifically arresting a suspected criminal. The Court of Appeal also found that it was in fact Mr Williams who had caused the harm to the elderly woman and that even if the police had owed Mrs Robinson a duty of care, the officers had been unaware of Mrs Robinson’s presence at the time of the incident.
Mrs Robinson decided to appeal this judgement to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court appeal also focussed on the key question of whether the police owe a duty of care to avoid causing injury whilst they exercise their core functions. Mrs Robinson’s legal team argued that there was a difference between whether injury was caused because of the direct actions of the police, rather than an unforeseeable accidental result of their actions.
The Supreme Court allowed the appeal and concluded that a duty of care existed in this case. The Court ruled that the police should be under a duty of care to protect an individual from a danger of injury which they have themselves created. Specifically, the injury to Mrs Robinson would not have occurred if the police had planned the arrest more carefully, and not conducted the operation in a busy public place where there was an obvious danger to bystanders.
The Supreme Court found that the police had failed in their duty of care to Mrs Robinson because they planned the arrest poorly and took an action that resulted directly in her injuries. Therefore, the police were responsible for Mrs. Robinson’s injuries, and would be required to compensate her for the harm she had suffered as a consequence.
This is a very important decision as it means that where the police take actions which create a reasonably foreseeable danger to innocent bystanders, they owe a duty of care to those bystanders to keep them as safe as reasonably possible in all circumstances. The police have to consider risk to members of the public, and balance this against the actions they plan to take. It is possible, therefore, for any failure to avoid foreseeable risk in police actions, which result in personal injury to bystanders, to be considered negligence.