• In the case of Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] AC 53, a policy decision absolved the Constabulary of West Yorkshire from owing a duty of care to the final victim of a horrendous serial killer
  • A policy decision is one which seeks to protect public authorities (e.g. the police, medical practices, fire brigades etc) from liability as, unless it existed, far too many claims would flood the courts system

Facts of the Case

  • The ‘Yorkshire ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe, was a notorious serial killer that ravaged the areas of Leeds, Bradford and Manchester in the 1970s and early 1980s, killing over a dozen people and attempting to murder eight others; his victims were females – prostitutes or women walking unaccompanied (usually young)
  • The police conducted investigations in the areas with reported crimes, not only failing to arrest Sutcliffe for over a decade, but failing to identify him on several occasions when his car was detected at road stops and failing to detect and appropriately recognise his voice after Sutcliffe had called the police (amid other acts of police negligence)
  • Jacqueline Hill was a university student in Leeds and was to become Sutcliffe’s last victim after she was murdered in 1980, aged 20

Issues in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [1989] AC 53

  • Jacqueline Hill’s estate (her mother) brought a negligence claim against the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, alleging that the police failed in their investigatory duties in the area that had experienced the most murders

Held by the House of Lords  

  • Appeal dismissed – held that Sutcliffe had not escaped police custody as he had not been arrested, hence, the police had not acted negligently
  • Just because V was a young female, this did not automatically assign a duty of care to her on the police; no obligation for the police to apprehend and identify an unknown criminal

Lord Keith of Kinkel

Provided the main part of the judgement’s ratio decidendi focusing on the remoteness of the likelihood of J. Hill being the exact next victim of Sutcliffe as a result of the police’s actions; Lord Brandon of Oakbrook, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton and Lord Goff of Chieveley followed Lord Keith’s draft submission and were also persuaded to dismiss the appeal

  • ‘So the common law, while laying upon chief officers of police an obligation to enforce the law, makes no specific requirements as to the manner in which the obligation is to be discharged.’ [at p.59]
  • ‘Miss Hill was one of a vast number of the female general public who might be at risk from his activities but was at no special distinctive risk in relation to them, unlike the owners of yachts moored off Brownsea Island in relation to the foreseeable conduct of the Borstal boys. [compared Hill’s case to the Dorset Yacht Club case]’ [at p.62]
  • ‘The alleged negligence of the police consists in a failure to discover his identity. But if there is no general duty of care owed to individual members of the public by the responsible authorities to prevent the escape of a known criminal or to recapture him, there cannot reasonably be imposed upon any police force a duty of care similarly owed to identify and apprehend an unknown one. Miss Hill cannot for this purpose be regarded as a person at special risk simply because she was young and female.’ [at p.62]

Lord Templeman

Dismissed the appeal and commented on the so-called public policy decisions protecting public authorities

  • ‘The threat of litigation against a police force would not make a policeman more efficient. The necessity for defending proceedings, successfully or unsuccessfully, would distract the policeman from his duties.’ [at p.65]