In a ground-breaking decision, the Supreme Court has dispelled the mistaken belief that the police enjoy a general immunity from being sued in respect of anything they do in the course of investigating or preventing crime.
The case concerned a woman in her 70s who had just got off a bus and was walking on a public pavement when three men fell on top of her, causing serious orthopaedic injuries. Two of the men were police officers who had been struggling with a suspected drug dealer in an attempt to arrest him. The suspect backed into the pensioner before all three tumbled onto her.
The woman's compensation claim failed before the High Court and the Court of Appeal. In upholding her challenge to the latter ruling, however, the Supreme Court noted that the officers had foreseen that the suspect might try to escape and had not noticed the woman as she walked in the immediate vicinity.
The Court accepted that, in the absence of special circumstances, the police do not have a duty to protect the public from harm through the performance of their law enforcement functions. However, legal authorities were not inconsistent with the proposition that the police are generally under a duty to avoid causing personal injury where such a duty would arise according to the ordinary principles of the law of negligence.
In this case, the woman had been injured by a positive act, rather than an omission, on the officers' part. The reasonably foreseeable risk of injury befalling the woman when the arrest was attempted was sufficient to impose a duty of care on the officers. She had been injured as a result of being exposed to a danger from which they had a duty to protect her.
Given the frequent interface between the public and the police during the course of arrests, the Court noted that the law should recognise that the police bear a general liability for positive negligent conduct which foreseeably and directly inflicts physical injury. The amount of the woman's compensation remains to be assessed.