Police Blanket Immunity Overruled?

On 21st February, the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed an appeal by the police over an earlier ruling that they would be liable for their failings in investigations involving John Worboy’s victims.

Lord Kerr in Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis v DSD and Another [2018] stated that “if the investigation is seriously defective, even if no systemic failures are present, this will be enough to render the police liable.”

Two of Worboy’s victims brought a claim against the Police, named as DSD and NBV, stating that the police had not adequately followed procedure in collecting evidence and conducting proper interviews, which could have led to Worboy’s being caught earlier. They claimed that the distress caused to them amounted to a breach of the prohibition on torture, inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. DSD in particular suffered depressive illness as a result of the way the police handled her case.

Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that Public Authorities, such as the police, are under an obligation to act in a way which is compatible with the European Convention.

The specific circumstances given were where the officers failure to retrieve relevant CCTV footage and failed to interview a witness. One of the victims was told that not crying during her interview meant that she was “not believable”.

John Worboys was a former taxi driver in London, believed to have carried out more than 100 rapes and sexual assaults on women in London between 2002 to 2008, by offering them drinks laced with a date-rape drug and then proceeding to assault them.

Traditionally, the police force enjoyed blanket immunity from litigation. The court ruled in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire that no duty of care is owed by the police in relation to any errors made in fulfilling their general public functions of investigating and preventing crime. It was specifically raised due to public policy concerns that a finding of liability would lead to defensive practices and would impede their progress in investigations.

However, Lord Kerr’s judgment would indicate that the police would be open to litigation if they fail to fully investigate serious offences. This could lead to the police focusing their attention to crimes of serious violence and away from less serious crimes involving theft or disruptive social behaviour.

The same dangers discussed in 1989 in the Hill case still exist today. Police litigation is considered a waste of time and expense and would divert the police’s attention from suppressing crime to defending themselves in the courts. This is a very contentious issue as it would divert police funds, meaning that ultimately taxpayers’ money is being used to tackle claims instead of solving crimes.

Despite these strong arguments for blanket immunity, it must be remembered that the police would still owe an obligation to respect the human rights of victims of crimes and defendants.

By Kimberly Nielsen (3rd year Law student) in Feb 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.