Wednesday Law Report: Police liable for prisoner's suicide

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The Independent Culture
21 July 1999

Reeves v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis

House of Lords (Lord Hoffmann, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough) 15 July 1999

WHILST THE defences of volenti non fit injuria or novus actus interveniens were not available to the police to resist a claim that they had negligently caused the death of a prisoner who was a known suicide risk, and who had committed suicide whilst in police custody, the deceased was 50 per cent liable for his own death within the provisions of the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945.

The House of Lords allowed the appeal of the Commissioner against the decision of the Court of Appeal to award damages of pounds 8,690 to the plaintiff, administratix of Martin Lynch, who had committed suicide whilst in police custody, to the extent that the damages would be halved on the basis of contributory negligence.

The police had known that the deceased was a suicide risk. On the day of his death he had been examined by a doctor, who had given instructions that, as a suicide risk, he should be frequently observed. A few minutes after a police officer had checked and seen that he was lying on his bed, he had used his shirt as a ligature to hang himself by pushing it through the hatch on his cell door, which had been left open, and securing it to the door.

The plaintiff sued the defendant under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for negligently causing L's death. The trial judge found that, having regard to the fact that the police had known that the deceased was a suicide risk, they had owed him a duty to take reasonable care to prevent him from committing suicide while being held in custody, and that they had been negligent in failing to shut the door hatch after he had been put into the cell.

He found, however, that the breach of duty by the police had not caused the death, on the basis either of volenti non fit injuria or novus actus interveniens, the sole cause of death having been the deceased's deliberate act in killing himself. He also gave the defendant leave to amend the defence to raise an alternative plea of contributory negligence, and assessed the deceased's responsibility in accordance with section 1(1) of the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 at 100 per cent.

The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeal, which allowed the appeal by a majority, holding, inter alia, that neither volenti non fit injuria nor novus actus interveniens was appropriate in a case where the act of the deceased relied upon to establish either defence was the very act which the defendant was under a duty to prevent. The plaintiff was awarded damages of pounds 8,690. The defendant appealed.

Nicholas Blake QC and Tim Owen (Christian Fisher) for the plaintiff; David Pannick QC and Simon Freeland (Solicitor, Metropolitan Police) for the defendant.

Lord Hoffmann said that there was a difference between protecting people against harm caused to them by third parties and protecting them from harm which they inflicted upon themselves. A duty to protect a person of full understanding from causing harm to himself was very rare indeed. However, once it was accepted that the present case was the rare case in which such a duty was owed, it was self-contradictory to say that breach of that duty could not have been a cause of harm because the victim had caused it to himself.

Because the police had been under a duty to take reasonable care not to give the deceased the opportunity to kill himself, the common sense answer to the question whether their carelessness had caused his death was yes. Because the deceased had also had responsibility for his own life, the common sense answer to the question whether he caused his own death was also yes. Both causes had, therefore, contributed to his death, and the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 provided the means of reflecting that division of responsibility in the award of damages. In those circumstances, the correct answer was to apportion responsibility equally.