A Mr Smith had complained to the police that his partner had been threatening to kill him. The threats were over a concerted period of time, graphic and backed by evidence and threatening actions. The police effectively did nothing. In the end the ex-partner attempted to murder Mr Smith with a claw hammer.
- Lord Justice Sedley said that that there was some point at which police officers, once alerted, could not escape responsibility. In the past cases such as Hill -v- Chief Constable of Yorkshire (failure to competently detect the Yorkshire Ripper leading to subsequent murders) had failed for:
want of a relationship duty of care between the police and the (general) public but, even where that existed for certain individuals who had established a duty of care ,
public policy grounds.
But Hill -v- Chief Constable of Yorkshire was not authority that cases against the police by the public could not proceed. In Swinney, an informer, whose name was negligently disclosed by the police to a third party, had a cause of action. Article 2 of the Human Rights Convention was also now in force.
According to LJ Sedley:
“If there is a convention value in play here, it is the right to life enshrined in art. 2, with the derivative obligation upon states, developed in the court's jurisprudence, to take reasonable steps to protect human life. This coheres well enough with the common law, which recognises that it is not reasonable to expect the police to answer in damages to every individual whose life or health might have been spared or saved by more competent police work, but that where, for example, someone's life or safety has been so firmly placed in the hands of the police as to make it incumbent on them to take at least elementary steps to protect it, unexcused neglect to do so can sound in damages if harm of the material kind results”
The police status would require them, unlike the ordinary passer by, to do something.
This judgment only allowed the case to proceed in principle to trial and to re-enforce the existence of a duty of care between police and individuals. At least one judge was sceptical about its likely success at trial for public policy reasons
Smith -v- Chief Constable of Sussex Police. CA, 17 March 2008.