Sherratt v The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police
High Court (QB)
16 July 2018
Background and findings
The deceased, Georgina Beevers was found dead at her home on the morning of the 30 January 2012, having taken an overdose of her amitriptyline medication.
The claimant was the partner of the deceased, at the time of her death and father to her children. He brought a claim for the benefit of the deceased’s two children and himself, pursuant to the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and for the benefit of the Estate of the deceased.
The only issue for the High Court to consider was the existence of a duty of care owed to the deceased. It was alleged that the police failed expeditiously and/or adequately to deal with, and/or respond to, the information conveyed to them concerning the deceased in a 999 call made by her mother.
At 6.44 pm on 29 January 2012 the police received a 999 call from the deceased's mother who reported her concerns for the welfare of her daughter. The call handler graded the call as Grade 1 (Emergency Attendance). However, minutes after, the call was downgraded to Grade 2 (‘Priority Attendance’).
Police officers attended the deceased’s house at 10.19pm but there was no response. Officers attended again the following morning at 8.17am. One of the children let them in the house and they found the deceased dead in the living room.
The starting point in the context of such a claim against the police is the case of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, where Lord Keith reviewed the position regarding the establishment of a duty of care and stated:
‘It has been said almost too frequently to require repetition that foreseeability of likely harm is not in itself a sufficient test of liability in negligence. Some further ingredient is invariably needed to establish the requisite proximity of relationship between plaintiff and defendant, and all the circumstances must be carefully considered and analysed in order to ascertain whether such an ingredient is present’.
In a number of cases the police and other emergency services have been held not to owe a duty of care in circumstances when they had failed to respond to an emergency call or where they delayed in responding. In Sherratt, the police submitted that there was no basis for a finding of an assumption of responsibility and hence no basis for a duty of care as there had not been any communication between the police and the deceased, no assurances had been given to the deceased and she had not relied on any assurances. It was submitted that any assurance was given to the mother and any reliance was on the part of the mother.
However, the Recorder found a duty of care existed in this case, upon an assumption of responsibility by the police for the welfare of the deceased arising out an assurance to the deceased’s mother, coupled with a ‘detrimental reliance by the Mother’.
The Recorder found that there was an assurance that if hospital attendance was required, this would be arranged by the police rather than the deceased's mother. He was satisfied that on the balance of probabilities the mother would, but for the assurance, have taken other steps including calling for an ambulance herself or seeking the assistance of others.
The Recorder found the case of Kent v Griffiths persuasive, where the London Ambulance Service was found to have owed a duty of care to an individual when assurances were made to a third party. In Sherratt, the High Court agreed with the Recorder, finding that his consideration of the 999 call more than justified the conclusion he came to as regards assurances being given to the mother. The court found that although the police handler did not state any specific time as to when the police would arrive, the mother was told that help for her daughter was going to be dispatched to her house promptly and also that the police would arrange for her to be taken to hospital, should this be necessary. The High Court noted that these were clearly different from the lack of assurances given in Michael v South Wales Police where no assumption of responsibility was found and that the claim was more in line with Kent.
The Recorder stated that he did not feel able to characterise a suicide as a personal choice and found no distinction between the police's duty to protect from self-harm and the duty to protect from external or general harm. The High Court found that the Recorder was correct in his approach on this issue.
The appeal was dismissed. The Recorder was not wrong in deciding that by the time the 999 call had concluded a duty of care for the deceased's welfare was owed by the police.
It is of note that at first instance the Recorder had ended his judgment by stating that the determination of the issue was entirely dependent upon the specific facts in this case and the application of well-established principles. He did not consider his judgment had added to the scope of the existing duties imposed on the police or had created any new principles.
On these facts, the words of the police call handler were critical, as they were sufficient to put the responsibility for the deceased’s safety with the police although the threat was from the deceased herself. The case therefore has implications for the police and others providing emergency services to the general public.