• In the case of Capital Counties v Hampshire CC [1997] 3 WLR 331, public policy immunity was the card attempted to be used by D for D’s failure to extinguish a fire in a building
  • Capital Counties was one of several appellants, so the full case name is: Capital & Counties PLC v Hampshire County Council; Digital Equipment Co Ltd v Same; John Munroe (Acrylics) Ltd v London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and Others; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Great Britain) v West Yorkshire Fire and Civil Defence Authority

Facts of the Case

  • A building caught fire and these premises were occupied by Capital Counties; the fire started at 10 am, the sprinklers turned on 23 minutes later, but were turned off at 10:50 am on the instruction of a fire fighter
  • A key principle in fire-fighting is that sprinklers should not be turned off until it is ascertained that the fire has been completely extinguished
  • The fire brigade located the seat of the fire at 11:10 am, but by 12:10, it was certain that the building had been totally succumbed to the fire
  • There was no concrete evidence about what would have happened on the balance of probabilities had the sprinklers been left on, but it was envisaged that three quarters of Block A and the whole of Blocks B and C from the building would have been saved – accordingly, failing to obstruct the fire resulted in £16 million in damages

Issues in Capital Counties v Hampshire CC [1997] 3 WLR 331

  • Decision appealed to the Court of Appeal on the ground of public policy immunity

Held by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division)  

  • Appeal dismissed – there was no common law duty to answer help calls and the brigade did not enter proximity with the premises’ occupier

Stuart-Smith, Potter and Judge LJJ

The panel’s judgement dismissed the appeal as the fire brigade’s actions had worsened the fire, so were not entitled to public policy immunity, which in principle was not always meant to be enjoyed by public authorities

  • ‘We consider first, therefore, whether there is any reason of policy why the Hampshire Fire Authority should not be liable. The starting point is that “the public policy consideration which has first claim on the loyalty of the law is that wrongs should be remedied, and that very potent considerations are required to override that policy:”per Lord Browne-Wilkinson in X (Minors) v. Bedfordshire County Council [1995] 2 A.C. 633, 749.’ [at p.353]
  • ‘But it is clear from the leading case of Hill v. Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] A.C. 53 that the police do not enjoy blanket immunity.’ [at p.353]
  • ‘In our judgment there is no doubt on which side of the line a case such as the Hampshire case falls. It is one where the defendants, by their action in turning off the sprinklers, created or increased the danger. There is no ground for giving immunity in such a case.’ [at p.356]