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Rathband and others v Chief Constable of Northumbria

Executive summaryIn a claim brought by the estate of PC David Rathband, who took his own life after being shot and blinded by the fugitive offender…

Queen’s Bench Division (Males J)
5 February 2016

Executive summary

In a claim brought by the estate of PC David Rathband, who took his own life after being shot and blinded by the fugitive offender Raoul Moat, the chief constable was alleged to have failed in his duty of care to warn officers of the threat posed by Moat. The court decided that although chief constables owed a general non-delegable duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their officers, it would not be fair, just or reasonable to impose a duty of care in cases such as this, involving operational decisions taken under pressure of time or circumstances. As a matter of public policy, the ‘core principle’ established in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (1989) AC 53 outweighed the claim in negligence.

Background

The tragic and violent facts of this case are well known.  On 3 July 2010 Moat shot and injured his former partner Ms Stobbart and killed her partner Christopher Brown in the mistaken belief that he was a police officer.

At 00.29 on Sunday 4 July Moat rang the police to outline his grievances against officers and made threats to kill and injure officers. He concluded by saying, ‘I am hunting for officers now.’ The senior investigating officer, Superintendent Farrell, was immediately made aware of the call. She decided to make two enquiries before warning officers of the threat: to carry out cell site analysis to identify Moat’s location and to conduct a proper analysis of the call.

Less than nine minutes after concluding his call, and seven and a half minutes after Superintendent Farrell had been made aware, Moat shot PC Rathband at close range causing him serious injury including the loss of his sight. 

PC Rathband subsequently founded the Blue Lamp Foundation for members of the emergency services injured on duty but sadly he took his own life on 29 February 2012. He had by then already commenced his action alleging negligence against the chief constable.

Decision

Mr Justice Males considered the following legal principles:

  1. Chief constables owe a duty to their officers to take reasonable care for their safety (‘the duty’). This is a different starting point from cases such as Hill where no duty is owed to members of the general public in the investigation or prevention of crime.
  2. The duty may be excluded as a matter of public policy where it would not be fair, just and reasonable to impose it (the Hill core principle). To impose the duty in such circumstances would lead to a defensive approach and inhibit the police in their duty to investigate and prevent crime.
  3. The duty will be excluded where operational decisions are made under pressure in the investigation or prevention of crime: the core functions of policing.

Applying these principles to the facts, Males J found that Superintendent Farrell’s was an operational decision taken under considerable pressure of time and directly concerned with the investigation and prevention of crime.  For the public policy reasons outlined in Hill, the claim in negligence would be dismissed. 

Comment

This case reaffirms the long-established Hill principle that actions cannot usually be sustained against chief constables alleging negligent failure to investigate or prevent crime. Notwithstanding the existence of the duty on chief constables to take reasonable care for officers’ safety, that principle applies equally to claims brought by police officers as to members of the general public. 

Claims may be possible in circumstances such as these under the Human Rights Act. Breaches of the obligations under the Article 2 ‘right to life’ may be arguable, although the tests are demanding. Further, even where established, any compensation by way of ‘just satisfaction’ may be much lower than under tortious principles. In the current case, only negligence was alleged.

For advice or assistance on any of the matters raised, please contact John Riddell, Partner on 0116 242 8925 or email john.riddell@weightmans.com