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Police Breached Duty of Care Owed to Stabbing Victim

It is notoriously difficult for victims of crime to successfully sue the police on the basis that they failed to match up to their duty of care. However, as the case of a woman who was repeatedly stabbed outside her home showed, it is not impossible.

The woman, her husband and children were getting into the family car when the attacker approached and knifed her seven times in the chest and body. He was later convicted of attempted murder and imprisoned for life. A neighbour had telephoned the police 12-13 minutes before the incident to inform them that a man was loitering outside the woman's home. An officer was swiftly despatched to the scene but no telephone warning was issued to the woman prior to the attack.

She was seriously injured and sought damages from the relevant police force. In dismissing her claim, however, a judge emphasised the reasons of public policy why the police are not generally under a duty of care to protect individual members of the public from the crimes of third parties. He went on to find that, even had the force owed the woman such a duty, it had not been breached.

In upholding her appeal against the judge's ruling, the High Court noted that she had been in a long and abusive relationship with her attacker. He was twice accused of assaulting her and had been convicted of an attack on her husband. He had been arrested at least three times and on numerous occasions had breached bail conditions preventing him from contacting her or going to her home.

Shortly before the attack, he had threatened to kill her and her family and to rape her children. The force was aware that, the day before the attack, he had trespassed on her property twice. Effectively laying siege to her home, he caused criminal damage to a window pane and attempted to break down her front door. The force knew that she was petrified to the point of being in fear of her life and accepted that it had erroneously assessed the risk to her as 'medium', rather than 'high'.

The attacker had never been accused of carrying a knife or other weapon in any of his interactions with the woman or her husband. However, the Court found that, on receiving the neighbour's 999 call, the force should reasonably have foreseen that the woman was at high risk of bodily injury within a very short space of time. Given that the call was made just as the woman was likely to be leaving for work and taking her children on the school run, the risk to her was immediate and obvious.

Turning to the public policy aspects of the case, the Court noted that abused women need protection. There were very good reasons why the neighbour's warning should have been passed on to her and the cost of doing so would have been infinitesimally small. Far from undermining police decision-making, imposing a duty of care on the force in such circumstances was likely to encourage good practice and promote public confidence in making reports to the police.

Ruling that the force had breached its duty of care, the Court found that the woman had a reasonable expectation that it would warn her that the attacker was lurking outside her home and that it had assumed a responsibility to do so. Other issues in the case, including the question of whether the force's breach of duty caused the woman's injuries, were remitted for determination by the trial judge, if available.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.