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Legal case

Prison authorities failed to keep a prisoner reasonably safe - a claim in negligence and for a breach of Article 3

Damages were payable in negligence and under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act.

Lee Newell v Ministry of Justice (2021)

Executive Summary

Damages were payable in negligence and under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act where prison authorities failed to keep a prisoner reasonably safe and he suffered serious injuries at the hands of another prisoner.

Background

The claimant, Lee Newell, is a convicted murderer serving a whole life term. On 27 November 2014, he was attacked by Gary Vinter, another prisoner serving a whole life term, whilst they were in the exercise yard of the Close Supervision Centre (CSC) at HMP Woodhill. The claimant suffered significant injuries as a result of this attack, including brain damage and the loss of sight in his right eye. He made a claim in negligence and for a breach of Article 3 (the bar on inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) against the defendant. The defendant admitted a duty in negligence and under Article 3 of the HRA but denied that a breach of these duties was made out on the facts. They also argued that the Article 3 claim was statute barred.

Discussion

Mr Vinter had a violent history and there was current intelligence that he presented a threat. He could have been isolated by a system known as single lock down. There had therefore been a breach of the duties in negligence and under Article 3. The one year limitation period for bringing the Article 3 claim was extended. The court were able to do this under the HRA where it was equitable in all the circumstances. The claim form had been issued eight months after the expiry of the limitation period. This was a relatively short delay and although this would affect the recollection of the defendant’s witnesses a good deal of documentary evidence was available. The delay did not seriously prejudice the cogency of the Defendant’s evidence. Damages of £85,000 were awarded.

Comment

It is now well established law that Article 3 claims can proceed against public authorities where there is a real and immediate risk of a breach of Article 3 that they knew or ought to have known about and judged reasonably could have taken steps to avoid that risk. This follows decision such as DSD and NVB v the Commissioner. The character of the assailant, existing intelligence and means of preventing the attack led to liability under Article 3 and in negligence. Damages are limited under Article 3 but were higher because of the concurrent claim in negligence where there are no such limits. It will be difficult to enforce the one year limitation period where there is no obvious prejudice. The specific facts of the case could lead the police open to claims where there are assaults on prisoners in custody. The well established legal tests set out under Article 3 can also of course be used by members of the public where there has been a failure to prevent serious crime in any setting that amounts to a breach of Article 3 rights.

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