Police not held responsible for PTSD

Brooks v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis - (House of Lords - 21 April 2005)

Duwayne Brooks (B) was the victim of a racist attack and witness to the murder of Stephen Lawrence. B developed post-traumatic stress disorder and sought damages from the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis on the grounds of negligence, false imprisonment and misfeasance in public office. The Macpherson Inquiry exposed a number of errors in the investigation and found that officers had failed to treat B 'properly and in accordance with his needs'.

The Commissioner argued, following Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (1989), that the police owe no legal duty to take care that either victims or witnesses do not suffer PTSD as a result of police action or omission.

B argued that whilst the decision in Hill still stood, the police owed him a general duty to (a) take reasonable steps to assess whether B was a victim of crime and therefore provide appropriate support and protection, (b) take reasonable steps to provide support and protection as a key eye-witness and (c) afford reasonable weight to the account that B gave and to act upon it accordingly.

The House of Lords held that there was no basis for imposing on the police any of the three legal duties asserted by B on this appeal. With hindsight, not every observation in Hill can now be supported. Nowadays, a more sceptical approach to the carrying out of all public functions is necessary. The core principle of Hill remained unchallenged for many years and their Lordships were satisfied that the decision in Hill must stand. The police must be entitled to concentrate on preventing crime and protecting life and a retreat from Hill would have detrimental effects for law enforcements.

Placing general duties of care on the police to victims and witnesses would lead to defensive policing.

Their Lordships held that the three alleged duties of care were bound up with the police function of investigating crime, which remains covered by the core principle in Hill, and that, accordingly, the Commissioner could not be held liable in negligence for the manner in which B was treated.

Comment: Although it may sometimes leave members of the public without a private law remedy, the core principles of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire remains, that there is no common law duty owed by the police towards individual members of the public, whether victims or witnesses, when investigating or preventing crime. - Nicola Sparkes, BLM London.

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