Judges rule police are immune from negligence claims

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THE Metropolitan Police had immunity from a negligence action alleging they failed to act on warnings that a teacher, infatuated with a teenage pupil, was criminally insane and liable to commit murder, the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Although the court accepted that police in Hackney, east London, owed a duty of care towards Ahmed Osman and his father, Ali Osman, because they knew of the actions of the teacher, Paul Paget- Lewis, they had immunity from negligence actions in such cases, the court ruled.

Paget-Lewis, a teacher at a school in Hackney, who changed his name to Osman because of his obsession with the boy, then 15, was sent to Broadmoor in 1988.

In March 1987, after a campaign of harassment against the family, Paget-Lewis used a stolen shotgun to kill Ali Osman and seriously injure his son.

He also seriously injured the deputy headmaster at the school and killed his 17-year-old son.

Lords Justices McCowan, Beldam and Simon Brown yesterday allowed an appeal by the Metropolitan Police against an earlier High Court ruling that the action by Ahmed Osman and his mother, Mulkiye Osman, should be allowed to proceed.

The court refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords although lawyers for the family said they would apply directly to the Lords. Louise Christian, solicitor for the family, said they were 'very disappointed'.

'It means that, alone among the public services, it appears the police cannot be sued for negligence in the exercise of the main function they carry out - investigation and suppression of crime. This is despite the court's acceptance that there was a duty of care to the boy and his father, where they found against the police.'

She added: 'It seems ridiculous that following a series of miscarriages of justice, when there is considerable public concern about standards of policing, and when the Home Office is placing greater emphasis on scrutinising the actions of the police by publishing performance indicators, the courts are going in the opposite direction.'

In seeking to have the action thrown out, the Metropolitan Police relied upon the rejection by the House of Lords of an action for negligence against West Yorkshire Police brought by the mother of Jaqueline Hill, the last victim of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.

The Lords said there was no duty of care on the police towards Miss Hill since neither her identity or that of Sutcliffe were known. The court said yesterday that in the Osman case there was 'an arguable case' that there was a very close degree of proximity between the police, the family and Paget- Lewis.

The Lords judgment also said that police should be immune from actions for negligence over matters of crime investigation and detection.

This was largely because of the 'time, trouble and expense' defending such actions, the re-opening of cases without reasonable cause and the possibility of a great many such challenges.

Giving judgment yesterday, Lord Justice McCowan said: 'The House of Lords decision on public policy immunity in the Hill case dooms this action to failure.

'It is a plain and obvious case falling squarely within the House of Lords decision.'

John Hendry QC, for the family, told the court that between October and December 1987, Paget-Lewis, who had been dismissed from his job, was seen by a policeman about vandalism at the Osman home.

Paget-Lewis had warned that he was in danger of doing 'something criminally insane'.

In December, in a conversation reported to police, he told an ILEA official he would do a 'thing like Hungerford'.

Two days later, police went to Paget-Lewis's home to arrest him for criminal damage; he was not there. Shortly afterwards, police were told of a conversation when he said he would 'end up doing life'.

Between then and the killing, Paget-Lewis was often at his home and hired a number of cars in his own name; despite this, police had made no attempt to arrest or interview him.

Among the incidents committed by Paget-Lewis and reported to police were the theft of school files, the painting of obscene graffiti around the area and a brick through the window of the Osman home.

There were two instances of tyres on Mr Osman's car being slashed and one of the windscreen being broken, the pouring of engine oil and paraffin through the letter-box of the Osman home, and extra-strength glue being put on the lock of the front door.