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Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1988] 2 WLR 1049 House of Lords

Jacqueline Hill was the final victim of Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper). He had committed 13 murders and 8 attempted murders over a five year period. Jacqueline' Mother made a claim against the Chief Constable on the grounds that the police had been negligent in their detection and detention of Sutcliffe. The defendant applied to have the claim struck out on the grounds that there was no cause of action since no duty of care was owed by the police in the detection of crime.

Held:

No duty of care was owed.

Lord Keith:

"Potential existence of such liability may in many instances be in the general public interest, as tending towards the observance of a higher standard of care in the carrying on of various different types of activity. I do not, however, consider that this can be said of police activities. The general sense of public duty which motivates police forces is unlikely to be appreciably reinforced by the imposition of such liability so far as concerns their function in the investigation and suppression of crime. From time to time they make mistakes in the exercise of that function, but it is not to be doubted that they apply their best endeavours to the performance of it. In
some instances the imposition of liability may lead to the exercise of a function being carried on in a detrimentally defensive frame of mind. The possibility of this happening in relation to the investigative operations of the police cannot be excluded. Further it would be reasonable to expect that if potential liability were to be imposed it would be not uncommon for actions to be raised against police forces on the ground that they had failed to catch some criminal as soon as they might have done, with the result that he went on to commit further crimes. While some such actions might involve allegations of a simple and straightforward type of failure - for example that a police officer negligently tripped and fell while pursuing a burglar - others would be likely to enter deeply into the general nature of a police investigation, as indeed the present action would seek to do. The manner of conduct of such an investigation must necessarily involve a variety of decisions to be made on matters of policy and discretion, for example as to which particular line of inquiry is most advantageously to be pursued and what is the most advantageous way to deploy the available resources. Many such decisions would not be regarded by the courts as appropriate to be called in question, yet elaborate investigation of the facts might be necessary to ascertain whether or not this was so. A great deal of police time, trouble and expense might be expected to have to be put into the preparation of the defence to the action and the attendance of witnesses at the trial. The result would be a significant diversion of police manpower and attention from their most important function, that of the suppression of crime. Closed investigations would require to be reopened and retraversed, not with the object of bringing any criminal to justice but to ascertain whether or not they had been competently conducted. I therefore
consider that Glidewell L.J., in his judgment in the Court of Appeal in the present case [1988] Q.B. 60, 76, was right to take the view that the police were immune from an action of this kind."
 
Back to lecture outline on policy factors in relation to duty of care in Negligence