Landmark murder case could remove police immunity from being sued for negligence


Social Affairs Correspondent

The family of a woman murdered by her ex-boyfriend after a bungled 999 response have begun a legal battle to remove police immunity from being sued for negligence.

The landmark case, which began in the Supreme Court today, has the potential to open up the police to damages actions in negligence when they fail to protect the public properly.

Joanna Michael, 25, from Cardiff, dialled 999 twice when her ex-boyfriend Cyron Williams threatened to kill her. But “individual and systemic failures” by the police meant that by the time the emergency services arrived she had already been stabbed to death, a panel of seven top judges was told.

The case has come to Britain’s highest court after Ms Michael’s family challenged a Court of Appeal ruling in 2012 that the police have an immunity from being sued for negligence when their officers act during “the investigation or suppression of crime”.

Police immunity from negligence claims in this context was last tested in 1988 by the family of Jacqueline Hill, the first victim of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Ms Hill’s family argued police had been negligent in the detection and detention of Sutcliffe, but the House of Lords ruled that police forces were “immune from an action of this kind” and did not have a duty of care towards the victim.

Opening a two-day hearing, Nicholas Bowen QC, acting on behalf of Ms Michael’s family, said the case was “desperately important”, particularly in relation to domestic violence cases. He added that it was “incongruous and inequitable if police are afforded greater protection than volunteer rescuers who are under no obligation to intervene, yet if they do they can be liable if they make things worse.”

The Independent understands that several cases in the lower courts are waiting on a decision in the matter. These include the police response to the shooting of a woman by a man who should have been sectioned and another domestic violence case relating to a murder by an ex-boyfriend when police had been called more than half a dozen times.

Cyron Williams stabbed Joanna Michael 72 times Cyron Williams stabbed Joanna Michael 72 times (Wales News Service)

Presenting his case to seven Supreme Court justices, Mr Bowen said: “There is a need for a heightened accountability of the police in the light of recent scandals and investigations which have had a very serious detrimental effect on public and political confidence in police services.”

The lawsuit was “not just about money,” Mr Bowen said, but also a “determination to find out really and truly what happened”.

The court will also have to decide on a parallel case brought by the chief constables of South Wales and Gwent Police, who are cross-appealing against the appeal judges’ linked ruling that the family should be allowed to go ahead with a claim that Ms Michael’s human rights were breached by police failure to protect her right to life.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has already ruled that Ms Michael was failed by both South Wales and Gwent police.

Ms Michael was murdered in August 2009 after her ex-boyfriend Mr Williams, 19, broke into her home in a “mad fit of jealous rage” after discovering she had started a new relationship. He is now serving a life sentence with a 20-year tariff and will be in prison until at least 2030.

Ms Michael first called 999 at 2.29am on 5 August, telling Gwent Police that her ex partner had come to the house and found her with someone else. After biting her ear hard Mr Williams took the other man away in his car and said he would return to kill her.

There had been a history of domestic violence in the relationship, and Mr Bowen said the urgency of the call “was absolutely plain”. But the call had been routed to the wrong police force and when it was finally passed on to South Wales - the right force - it was wrongly downgraded to a non-urgent case that only required a response within an hour.

Ms Michael called a second time at 2.43am and could be heard screaming before the line cut out. When police officers finally arrived at 2.51am Ms Michael had been stabbed 72 times.

Mr Bowen told the court that the police had failed in their duty of care and that their individual and systemic errors justified them having to face damages claims for negligence.

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album