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You are here: BAILII >> Databases >> United Kingdom House of Lords Decisions >> Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1987] UKHL 12 (28 April 1987)
Cite as: [1988] 2 WLR 1049, [1987] UKHL 12, [1989] AC 53, [1988] 2 All ER 238

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    Parliamentary Archives,

    Hill (Administratrix of the Estate of Jacqueline Hill
    deceased) (A.P.) (Appellant) v. Chief Constable of West

    Yorkshire (Respondent)


    Die Jovis 28° Aprilis 1988

    Upon Report from the Appellate Committee to whom was
    referred the Cause Hi (Administratrix of the Estate of
    Jacqueline Hill deceased) (A.P.) against Chief Constable of
    West Yorkshire, That the Committee had heard Counsel on
    Monday the 8th, Tuesday the 9th and Wednesday the 10th days of
    February last, upon the Petition and Appeal of Doreen Violet
    Hill, of 24 Lealholm Crescent, Ormesby, Middlesbrough TS3 ONA,
    in the County of Cleveland, praying that the matter of the
    Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely an Order of
    Her Majesty's Court of Appeal of the 19th day of February
    1987, as amended, might be reviewed before Her Majesty the
    Queen in Her Court of Parliament and that the said Order might
    be reversed, varied or altered or that the Petitioner might
    have such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the
    Queen in Her Court of Parliament might seem meet; as upon the
    Case of the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire lodged in answer
    to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what
    was offered on either side in this Cause:

    It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and
    Temporal in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen
    assembled, That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of
    Appeal (Civil Division) of the 19th day of February 1987, as
    amended, complained of in the said Appeal be, and the same is
    hereby, Affirmed and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and
    the same is hereby, dismissed this House: And it is further
    Ordered, That the Costs incurred by the said Appellant in
    respect of the said Appeal be taxed in accordance with
    Schedule 2 to the Legal Aid Act 1974; And it is also further
    Ordered, That the Costs incurred by the said Respondent in
    respect of the said Appeal be paid out of the Legal Aid Fund
    pursuant to section 13 of the Legal Aid Act 1974, such Order
    to be suspended for four weeks to allow the Law Society to
    object if they wish.

    Cler: Asst. Parliamentor:

    Judgment: 28.4.88



    (A.P.) (APPELLANT)



    Lord Keith of Kinkel
    Lord Brandon of Oakbrook
    Lord Templeman
    Lord Oliver of Aylmerton
    Lord Goff of Chieveley


    My Lords,

    In 1975 a man named Peter Sutcliffe embarked upon a
    terrifying career of violent crime, centred in the metropolitan
    police area of West Yorkshire. All his victims were young or
    fairly young women. Between July 1975 and November 1980 he
    committed 13 murders and eight attempted murders upon such
    women, the modus operandi in each case being similar. Sutcliffe's
    last victim was a 20-year-old student called Jacqueline Hill, whom
    he murdered in Leeds on 17 November 1980. By chance, Sutcliffe
    was arrested in suspicious circumstances in Sheffield on 2 January
    1981, and confessed to the series of murders and attempted
    murders following interrogation. On 22 May 1981, at the Central
    Criminal Court, Sutcliffe was convicted of inter alia the murder of
    Miss Hill.

    Miss Hill's mother and sole personal representative now sues
    the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, claiming on behalf of Miss
    Hill's estate damages on the ground of negligence, for inter alia
    loss of expectation of life and pain and suffering. The defendant
    is sued under section 48(1) of the Police Act 1964, enacting that
    the chief officer of police for any police area shall be liable in
    respect of torts committed by constables under his direction and
    control in the performance or purported performance of their
    functions. The plaintiff in her statement of claim sets out the 20
    offences committed by Sutcliffe before the death of Miss Hill and
    avers that the circumstances of each of these were such that it
    was reasonable to infer that all were committed by the same man,
    and further that it was foreseeable that, if not apprehended, he
    would commit further offences of the same nature. The pleadings
    go on to allege that it was accordingly the duty of the defendant
    and all officers in his police force to use their best endeavours
    and exercise all reasonable care and skill to apprehend the
    perpetrator of the crimes and so protect members of the public
    who might otherwise be his future victims. A substantial number
    of matters are set out and relied upon as indicating that the West
    Yorkshire police force failed in that duty. It is unnecessary to set

    out these matters in detail. They amount broadly to allegations of
    failure to collate properly information in possession of the force
    pointing to Sutcliffe as a likely suspect, and of failing to give due
    weight to certain pieces of information while according excessive
    importance to others.

    The defendant, without delivering defences, applied under
    R.S.C., Ord. 18, r. 19 to have the statement of claim struck out
    as disclosing no reasonable cause of action. That application was
    granted by Sir Neil Lawson, sitting as a judge of the High court ,
    on 19 December 1985. Upon appeal by the plaintiff the Court of
    Appeal [1988] Q.B. 60 (Fox and Glidewell L.JJ. and Sir Roualeyn
    Cumming-Bruce), on 19 February 1987, affirmed Sir Neil Lawson.
    The plaintiff now appeals, with leave given in the Court of
    Appeal, to your Lordship's House.

    In considering whether the statement of claim was rightly
    struck out it must be assumed that the averments of fact therein
    contained are true. In particular, it must be assumed that in the
    course of their investigations into the series of crimes committed
    by Sutcliffe the West Yorkshire police force made a number of
    mistakes which they would not have made if they had exercised a
    reasonable degree of care and skill such as would have been
    expected to be displayed in the circumstances by an ordinarily
    competent police force. It must also be assumed, though this is
    not specifically averred in the statement of claim, that had they
    exercised that degree of care and skill Sutcliffe would have been
    apprehended before the date upon which he murdered Miss Hill,
    with the result that that particular crime would not have been

    The question of law which is opened up by the case is
    whether the individual members of a police force, in the course of
    carrying out their functions of controlling and keeping down the
    incidence of crime, owe a duty of care to individual members of
    the public who may suffer injury to person or property through the
    activities of criminals, such as to result in liability in damages, on
    the ground of negligence, to anyone who suffers such injury by
    reason of breach of that duty.

    There is no question that a police officer, like anyone else,
    may be liable in tort to a person who is injured as a direct result
    of his acts or omissions. So he may be liable in damages for
    assault, unlawful arrest, wrongful imprisonment and malicious
    prosecution, and also for negligence. Instances where liability for
    negligence has been established are Knightly v. Johns [1982] 1
    W.L.R. 349 and Rigby v. Chief Constable of Northamptonshire
    [1985] 1 W.L.R. 1242. Further, a police officer may be guilty of
    a criminal offence if he wilfully fails to perform a duty which he
    is bound to perform by common law or by statute: Reg. v. Dytham
    [1979] Q.B. 722, where a constable was convicted of wilful neglect
    of duty because, being present at the scene of a violent assault
    resulting in the death of the victim, he had taken no steps to

    By common law police officers owe to the general public a
    duty to enforce the criminal law: Reg. v. Commissioner of Police
    of the Metropolis, Ex parte Blackburn [1968] 2 Q.B. 118.
    duty may be enforced by mandamus, at the instance of one having

    - 2 -

    title to sue. But as that case shows, a chief officer of police has
    a wide discretion as to the manner in which the duty is
    discharged. It is for him to decide how available resources should
    be deployed, whether particular lines of inquiry should or should
    not be followed and even whether or not certain crimes should be
    prosecuted. It is only if his decision upon such matters is such as
    no reasonable chief officer of police would arrive at that someone
    with an interest to do so may be in a position to have recourse to
    judicial review. So the common law, while laying upon chief
    officers of police an obligation to enforce the law, makes no
    specific requirements as to the manner in which the obligation is
    to be discharged. That is not a situation where there can readily
    be inferred an intention of the common law to create a duty
    towards individual members of the public.

    Counsel for the appellant, however, sought to equiparate the
    situation to that which resulted in liability on the ground of
    negligence in Anns v. Merton London Borough Council [1978] A.C.
    728. There the borough were under a duty, imposed by legislation,
    to supervise compliance with building bye-laws, in particular as
    regards the construction of foundations. It was held that though
    the borough had a discretion whether or not to carry out an
    inspection of foundations in any particular case, in order to check
    compliance, once a decision had been made to carry out an
    inspection the borough owed to future owners and occupiers of the
    building in question a common law duty to exercise reasonable
    care in the inspection. In the present case, so it was maintained,
    the respondent, having decided to investigate the Sutcliffe murders,
    owed to his potential future victims a duty to do so with
    reasonable care.

    The foundation of the duty of care was said to be
    reasonable foreseeability of harm to potential future victims if
    Sutcliffe were not promptly apprehended. Lord Atkin's classic
    propositions in Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] AC 562, 580 were
    prayed in aid, as was Lord Wilberforce's well-known two stage test
    of liability in negligence in Anns [1978] AC 728, 751, 752.

    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 of the case must
    be carefully considered and analysed in order to ascertain whether
    such an ingredient is present. The nature of the ingredient will be
    found to vary in a number of different categories of decided
    cases. In the Anns case there was held to be sufficient proximity
    of relationship between the borough and future owners and
    occupiers of a particular building the foundations of which it was
    decided to inspect, and there was also a close relationship between
    the borough and the builder who had constructed the foundations.

    In Dorset Yacht Co. Ltd, v. Home Office [1970] AC 1004,
    Lord Diplock said of Lord Atkin's proposition:

    "Used as a guide to characteristics which will be found to
    exist in conduct and relationships which give rise to a legal
    duty of care this aphorism marks a milestone in the modern
    development of the law of negligence. But misused as a
    universal it is manifestly false."

    - 3 -

    Earlier at p. 1058, he had said:

    ". . . the judicial development of the law of negligence
    rightly proceeds by seeking first to identify the relevant
    characteristics that are common to the kinds of conduct and
    relationship between the parties which are involved in the
    case for decision and the kinds of conduct and relationships
    which have been held in previous decisions of the courts to
    give rise to a duty of care."

    The Dorset Yacht case dealt with a situation where some Borstal
    boys, who, having record of previous escapes, were encamped on
    Brownsea Island under the supervision of prison officers and
    escaped in the night while their guardians slept, boarded a yacht
    moored nearby in order to make their way to the mainland and
    manoeuvred it so as to damage the plaintiffs' yacht. One of the
    features of the case was that the damage sustained by the
    plaintiffs was the direct consequence of a tortious act done with
    conscious volition by a third party responsible for his own acts,
    which was interposed between the allegedly negligent conduct of
    the prison officers and the damage suffered. The actual decision,
    which was on a preliminary point of law, was that a special
    relationship existed on the one hand between the prison officers
    and the Borstal boys who were in their custody, and on the other
    hand between the prison officers and the owners of yachts moored
    near the encampment. That the boys might seek to make use of
    a yacht in order to get away to the mainland and might damage it
    in the process was the very thing which the prison officers ought
    reasonably to have foreseen. The prison officers had brought the
    boys, of whose propensity to attempt escape they were aware, into
    the locality where the yachts were moored and so had created a
    potential situation of danger for the owners of those yachts.
    Accordingly liability was capable of being established on the facts.

    However, the class of persons to whom a duty of care
    might be owed to prevent the escape of detainees was held to be
    limited. Lord Diplock said at pp. 1070-1071:

    "The risk of sustaining damage from the tortious acts of
    criminals is shared by the public at large. It has never
    been recognised at common law as giving rise to any cause
    of action against anyone but the criminal himself. It would
    seem arbitrary and therefore unjust to single out for the
    special privilege of being able to recover compensation from
    the authorities responsible for the prevention of crime a
    person whose property was damaged by the tortious act of a
    criminal merely because the damage to him happened to be
    caused by a criminal who had escaped from custody before
    completion of his sentence instead of by one who had been
    lawfully released or who had been put on probation or given
    a suspended sentence or who had never been previously
    apprehended at all. To give rise to a duty on the part of
    the custodian owed to a member of the public to take
    reasonable care to prevent a Borstal trainee from escaping
    from his custody before completion of the trainee's sentence
    there should be some relationship between the custodian and
    the person to whom the duty is owed which exposes that
    person to a particular risk of damage in consequence of that

    - 4 -

    escape which is different in its incidence from the general
    risk of damage from criminal acts of others which he snares
    with all members of the public.

    What distinguishes a Borstal trainee who has escaped from
    one who has been duly released from custody is his liability
    to recapture, and the distinctive added risk which is a
    reasonably foreseeable consequence of a failure to exercise
    due care in preventing him from escaping is the likelihood
    that in order to elude pursuit immediately upon the
    discovery of his absence the escaping trainee may steal or
    appropriate and damage property which is situated in the
    vicinity of the place of detention from which he has

    So long as Parliament is content to leave the general risk
    of damage from criminal acts to lie where it falls without
    any remedy except against the criminal himself the courts
    would be exceeding their limited function in developing the
    common law to meet changing conditions if they were to
    recognise a duty of care to prevent criminals escaping from
    penal custody owed to a wider category of members of the
    public than those whose property was exposed to an
    exceptional added risk by the adoption of a custodial system
    for young offenders which increased the likelihood of their
    escape unless due care was taken by those responsible for
    their custody.

    I should therefore hold that any duty of a Borstal officer to
    use reasonable care to prevent a Borstal trainee from
    escaping his custody was owed only to persons whom he
    could reasonably foresee had property situate in the vicinity
    of the place of detention of the detainee which the detainee
    was likely to steal or appropriate and damage in the course
    of eluding immediate pursuit and recapture. Whether or not
    any person fell within this category would depend upon the
    facts of the particular case including the previous criminal
    and escaping record of the individual trainee concerned and
    the nature of the place from which he escaped."

    The Dorset Yacht case was concerned with the special
    characteristics or ingredients beyond reasonable foreseeability of
    likely harm which may result in civil liability for failure to control
    another man to prevent his doing harm to a third. The present
    case falls broadly into the same category. It is plain that vital
    characteristics which were present in the Dorset Yacht case and
    which led to the imposition of liability are here lacking. Sutcliffe
    was never in the custody of the police force. Miss Hill was one
    of a vast number of the female general public who might be at
    risk from his activities but was at no special distinctive risk in
    relation to them, unlike the owners of yachts moored off Brownsea
    Island in relation to the foreseeable conduct of the Borstal boys.
    It appears from the passage quoted from the speech of Lord
    Diplock in the Dorset Yacht case that in his view no liability
    would rest upon a prison authority, which carelessly allowed the
    escape of an habitual criminal, for damage which he subsequently
    caused, not in the course of attempting to make good his getaway
    to persons at special risk, but in further pursuance of his general
    criminal career to the person or property of members of the

    - 5 -

    general public. The same rule must apply as regards failure to
    recapture the criminal before he had time to resume his career.
    In the case of an escaped criminal his identity and description are
    known. In the instant case the identity of the wanted criminal
    was at the material time unknown and it is not averred that any
    full or clear description of him was ever available. The alleged
    negligence of the police consists in a failure to discover his
    identity. But if there is no general duty of care owed to
    individual members of the public by the responsible authorities to
    prevent the escape of a known criminal or to recapture him, there
    cannot reasonably be imposed upon any police force a duty of care
    similarly owed to identify and apprehend an unknown one. Miss
    Hill cannot for this purpose be regarded as a person at special risk
    simply because she was young and female. Where the class of
    potential victims of a particular habitual criminal is a large one
    the precise size of it cannot in principle affect the issue. All
    householders are potential victims of an habitual burglar, and all
    females those of an habitual rapist. The conclusion must be that
    although there existed reasonable foreseeability of likely harm to
    such as Miss Hill if Sutcliffe were not identified and apprehended,
    there is absent from the case any such ingredient or characteristic
    as led to the liability of the Home Office in the Dorset Yacht
    case. Nor is there present any additional characteristic such as
    might make up the deficiency. The circumstances of the case are
    therefore not capable of establishing a duty of care owed towards
    Miss Hill by the West Yorkshire Police.

    That is sufficient for the disposal of the appeal. But in my
    opinion there is another reason why an action for damages in
    negligence should not lie against the police in circumstances such
    as those of the present case, and that is public policy. In Yuen
    Kun Yeu v. Attorney General of Hong Kong
    [1988] A.C. 175, 193,
    I expressed the view that the category of cases where the second
    stage of Lord Wilberforce’s two stage test in Anns v. Merton
    London Borough Council
    [1978] AC 728, 752 might fall to be
    applied was a limited one, one example of that category being
    Rondel v. Worsley [1969] 1 AC 191. Application of that second
    stage is, however, capable of constituting a separate and
    independent ground for holding that the existence of liability in
    negligence should not be entertained. 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

    - 6 -

    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
    on grounds similar to those which in Rondel v. Worsley [1969] 1
    A.C. 191 were held to render a barrister immune from actions for
    negligence in his conduct of proceedings in court.

    My Lords, for these reasons I would dismiss the appeal.


    My Lords,

    I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech
    prepared by my noble and learned friend, Lord Keith of Kinkel. I
    agree with it, and for the reasons which he gives I would dismiss
    the appeal.


    My Lords,

    The appellant, Mrs. Hill, is tormented with the unshakeable
    belief that her daughter would be alive today if the respondent the
    West Yorkshire police force had been more efficient. That belief
    is entitled to respect and understanding. Damages cannot
    compensate for the brutal extinction of a young life and Mrs. Hill
    proposes that any damages awarded shall be devoted to an
    appropriate charity. Damages awarded by the court would not be
    paid by any policeman found wanting in the performance of his
    duty but would be paid by the public. Mrs. Hill therefore brings
    these proceedings with the object of obtaining an investigation into

    - 7 -

    the conduct of the West Yorkshire police force so that lives shall
    not be lost in the future by avoidable delay in the identification
    and arrest of a murderer.

    The question for determination in this appeal is whether an
    action for damages is an appropriate vehicle for investigating the
    efficiency of a police force. The present action will be confined
    to narrow albeit perplexing questions, for example, whether,
    discounting hindsight, it should have been obvious to a senior
    police officer that Sutcliffe was a prime suspect, whether a senior
    police officer should not have been deceived by an evil hoaxer,
    whether an officer interviewing Sutcliffe should have been better
    briefed, and whether a report on Sutcliffe should have been given
    greater attention. The court would have to consider the conduct
    of each police officer, to decide whether the policeman failed to
    attain the standard of care of a hypothetical average policeman.
    The court would have to decide whether an inspector is to be
    condemned for failing to display the acumen of Sherlock Holmes
    and whether a constable is to be condemned for being as obtuse as
    Dr. Watson. The plaintiff will presumably seek evidence, for what
    it is worth, from retired police inspectors, who would be asked
    whether they would have been misled by the hoaxer, and whether
    they would have identified Sutcliffe at an earlier stage. At the
    end of the day the court might or might not find that there had
    been negligence by one or more members of the police force. But
    that finding would not help anybody or punish anybody.

    It may be, and we all hope that the lessons of the
    Yorkshire Ripper case have been learned, that the methods of
    handling information and handling the press have been improved,
    and that co-operation between different police forces is now more
    highly organised. The present action would not serve any useful
    purpose in that regard. The present action could not consider
    whether the training of the West Yorkshire police force is
    sufficiently thorough, whether the selection of candidates for
    appointment or promotion is defective, whether rates of pay are
    sufficient to attract recruits of the required calibre, whether
    financial restrictions prevent the provision of modern equipment
    and facilities, or whether the Yorkshire police force is clever
    enough and if not, what can and ought to be done about it. The
    present action could only investigate whether an individual member
    of the police force conscientiously carrying out his duty was
    negligent when he was bemused by contradictory information or
    overlooked significant information or failed to draw inferences
    which later appeared to be obvious. That kind of investigation
    would not achieve the object which Mrs. Hill desires. The
    efficiency of a police force can only be investigated by an enquiry
    instituted by the national or local authorities which are responsible
    to the electorate for that efficiency.

    Moreover, if this action lies, every citizen will be able to
    require the court to investigate the performance of every
    policeman. If the policeman concentrates on one crime, he may
    be accused of neglecting others. If the policeman does not arrest
    on suspicion a suspect with previous convictions, the police force
    may be held liable for subsequent crimes. The threat of litigation
    against a police force would not make a policeman more efficient.
    The necessity for defending proceedings, successfully or
    unsuccessfully, would distract the policeman from his duties.

    - 8 -

    This action is in my opinion misconceived and will do more
    harm than good. A policeman is a servant of the public and is
    liable to be dismissed for incompetence. A police force serves the
    public and the elected representatives of the public must ensure
    that the public get the police force they deserve. It may be that
    the West Yorkshire police force was in 1980 in some respects
    better and in some respects worse than the public deserve. An
    action for damages for alleged acts of negligence by individual
    police officers in 1980 could not determine whether and in what
    respects the West Yorkshire police force can be improved in 1988.
    I would dismiss the appeal.


    My Lords,

    I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech
    prepared by my noble and learned friend Lord Keith of Kinkel. I
    agree that the appeal should be dismissed for the reasons which he
    has given.


    My Lords,

    I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech of
    my noble and learned friend Lord Keith of Kinkel. I agree with it
    and for the reasons he gives I would dismiss the appeal.

    - 9 -

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