Justices of the country’s highest court have ruled the family of a woman murdered by her former partner following the police’s delay responding to her 999 call cannot sue two forces for negligence.

The Supreme Court yesterday rejected by a 5-2 majority the family’s appeal against a Court of Appeal decision on a claim for negligence.

The parents and children of Joanna Michael had brought a claim for damages against the chief constables of Gwent Police and South Wales Police for negligence at common law and under the provisions of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1934, and for damages under the Human Rights Act for breach of the defendants’ duties as public authorities to protect Michael’s right to life under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Michael, who lived in Cardiff, rang 999 twice on the night she died in August 2009. The judgment states police officers arrived at her home to find that she had died of stab wounds. Her attacker subsequently pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.    

The police applied for the family’s claims to be struck out or for summary judgment be given in the police’s favour. This was refused at first instance by HH Judge Jarman QC but Court of Appeal judges unanimously ruled that there should be a summary judgment in favour of the police on the negligence claim.

The Supreme Court considered whether, in the context of police protecting victims from crimes, an exception should be made to the ordinary application of common law principles that a defendant will not generally be liable for harm to a claimant caused by the conduct of a third party.

Lord Toulson, giving lead judgment, and with whom Lord Neuberger, Lord Mance, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge agreed, said English law did not as a general rule impose liability on a defendant for injury or damage to the person or property of a claimant caused by the conduct of a third party.

‘It is one thing to require a person who embarks on action which may harm others to exercise care. It is another matter to hold a person liable in damages for failing to prevent harm caused by someone else.’

Dissenting, Lady Hale supported Lord Kerr’s analysis that ‘the necessary proximity is supplied if the police knew or ought to know of an imminent threat of death or personal injury to a particular individual which they have the means to prevent. Once that proximity is established, it is fair, just and reasonable to expect them to take reasonable care to prevent the harm’.

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the police’s cross-appeal against the Court of Appeal’s majority decision that the article 2 claim should proceed to trial.