This was one of the questions which the Supreme Court was asked to determine in the recent case of Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire. The claimant, an elderly lady had been knocked down during a struggle between two police officers and a suspect. They all ended up on top of her, causing her injury. They claimed not to have noticed the claimant.

The case went to trial and the judge decided that the officers negligent as it was reasonably foreseeable that the suspect, a drugs dealer, would try to escape arrest and pedestrians in the vicinity (a busy town centre) would be at risk of injury. However, he held that they were immune from such claims as previously decided by the Court of Appeal in case called Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] AC 53. The claimant appealed.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and held decided that the police did not owe the claimant a “duty of care”. Applying a three stage test from a case called Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman [1990] 2 A.C 605, the appeal court decided that the claim failed the third stage of the test, which is whether it would be “fair, just and reasonable” to impose such a duty. The court would only impose a duty in cases where it felt right to do so on the facts. It would not serve the public interests if police officers faced such obligations when trying to carry out their duties to protect the public. In any event, the court considered that it was the suspect whot was being detained who caused the injury and not the officers. The claimant appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rejected the view that the determination of duty of care always depended on the application of Caparo. It held that in this case the existence of a duty of care depended on the application of established principles of negligence. There was no general rule that the police were under no duty of care when performing operational duties. The Hill case had been misunderstood. The general law of tort applied to police officers like anyone else and so they were under a duty to avoid causing reasonably foreseeable injury or damage. Although the police cannot be held liable for failure to prevent harm caused by third parties, the officers were found to have acted carelessly and this resulted in foreseeable harm to the claimant to whom they owed a duty.

Whilst the Court of Appeal was found to have erred in dismissing the appeal, it had been correct to emphasise the importance of not imposing unrealistically demanding standards of care on police officers carrying out their operational duties.

This is a very interesting judgment, which sets out a balanced view on the obligations of the police to carry out their duties on the one hand and protecting the general public on the other but without imposing an unrealistic burden. It is certainly worthy of a read, especially in the current climate where such cases appear to be of common occurrence.