• In the case of Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co [1970] AC 1004, liability was established upon a governmental body for the acts of third parties
  • The case is one juxtaposing public policy decisions with the notion of a duty of care being owed by public authorities

Facts of the Case

  • Borstal was a youth detention centre for young offenders; some Borstal boys (that is how the young offenders were often referred to) were working on the boats stored at the Dorset Yacht Club under the supervision of the Home Office’s police officers
  • The police officers fell asleep and the Borstal boys seized this opportunity to trigger their escape
  • As part of their escape, the Borstal boys boarded a yacht, and in attempting to leave the Dorset Yacht Club, they hit the respondent’s yacht; needless to say, the respondent’s yacht sustained a damage

Issues in Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co [1970] AC 1004 

  • A key question before the court laid in whether the appellant would be vicariously liable should action be brought against the negligence of the supervising police officers

Held by the House of Lords

  • Appeal dismissed – the police officers owed a duty of care to the respondents because they should have envisaged that their failure to exercise proper supervision/control over the Borstal boys would have resulted in the Borstal boys’ breakaway; the officers were held to have breached the instructions on supervising the Borstal boys, so this strengthened the argument that a duty of care was owed to the respondents
  • Damages awarded accordingly

Lord Reid

Saw not reasonable ground in the public policy immunity umbrella over governmental departments and dismissed the appeal

  • ‘To summarise: it is accepted, that the authorities owe a duty of care for the safety of trainees when, they are in their custody and control; they must take reasonable care to provide them with safe premises and to provide protection for them from other inmates. This does not arise from a duty to retain and supervise, but is the general duty which anyone running an institution – a hospital, school, etc. – has to protect its inmates. He owes a duty to his staff to take care for their safety, but it is not accepted that this duty extends to the property of Borstal officers.’ [at p.1014]
  • ‘On the question of public policy, all three members of the Court of Appeal ignored the fact that public policy had been determined by Parliament in favour of the appellants in respect of the Borstal system by not providing a cause of action to anyone suffering damage by reason of a breach of the statutory duty.’ [at p.1015]
  • ‘Even so, it is said that the respondents must fail because there is a general principle that no person can be responsible for the acts of another who is not his servant or acting on his behalf. But here the ground of liability is not responsibility for the acts of the escaping trainees; it is liability for damage caused by the carelessness of these officers in the knowledge that their carelessness would probably result in the trainees causing damage of this kind. So the question is really one of remoteness of damage.’ [at p.1027]
  • ‘I do not think that a mere foreseeable possibility is or should be sufficient, for then the intervening human action can more properly be regarded as a new cause than as a consequence of the original wrongdoing. But if the intervening action was likely to happen I do not think that it can matter whether that action was innocent or tortious or criminal.’ [at p.1030]

Lord Morris of Borth-Y-Guest

Followed Lord Reid’s lack of recognition over the public immunity and dismissed the appeal

  • ‘The conclusion that I have reached is that the officers owed a duty to the company to take such care as in all the circumstances was reasonable with a view of preventing the boys in their charge and under their control from causing damage to the nearby property of the company if that was a happening of which there was a manifest and obvious risk.’ [at p.1035]

Viscount Dilhorne (dissenting)

Allowed the appeal, point out his reason for differing in the quotes below

  • ‘It is this third essential factor which, in my opinion, is absent in this case. There is no authority for the existence of such a duty under the common law.’ [at p.1051]
  • ‘Where I differ is in thinking that it is not part of the judicial function “to alter all this.” The facts of a particular case may be a wholly inadequate basis for a far-reaching change of the law. We have not to decide what the law should be and then alter the existing law. That is the function of Parliament. As in my opinion no such duty under the common Law now exists my answer to the question raised in this preliminary issue is in the negative and I would allow the appeal.’ [at p.1051]

Lord Pearson

Dismissed the appeal; Rs did not owe any general duty to keep the Borstal boys in detention; there was a special relation between the officers and the youth offenders – control imports responsibility

  • ‘I would say that the defendants owed no duty to the plaintiffs with regard to the detention of the Borstal boys (except perhaps incidentally as an abominate in supervision and control) nor with regard to the treatment or employment of them, but that the defendants did owe to the plaintiffs a duty of care, capable of giving rise to a liability in damages, with respect to the manner in which the Borstal boys were disciplined, controlled and supervised.’ [at p.1057]

Lord Diplock

Dismissed the appeal; any duty a Borstal officer to use reasonable care to prevent a Borstal boy from escaping was owed only to persons whom he could reasonable foresee had property in the vicinity of the detention place of the boys

  • ‘These considerations lead me to the conclusion that neither the intentional release of a Borstal trainee under supervision, nor the unintended escape of a Borstal trainee still under detention which was the consequence of the application of a system of relaxed control intentionally adopted by the Home Office as conducive to the reformation of trainees, can have been intended by Parliament to give rise to any cause of action on the part of any private citizen unless the system adopted was so unrelated to any purpose of reformation that no reasonable person could have reached a bona fide conclusion that it was conducive to that purpose.’ [at p.1068’