• In the case of Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2000] 1 A.C. 360, it was held the suicide by a person in police custody was not an intervening act negating the causal connection between the breach of the police’s duty to prevent suicide in the circumstances and the death. However, the person, having responsibility for their own life, was also a cause and thus contributed to the negligence.

Facts of the Case

  • C’s partner had been remanded in custody on charges of credit fraud and was also under investigation for handling stolen vehicles.
  • C’s partner was a known suicide risk, having twice attempted to commit suicide while in custody. A doctor found no other evidence of mental disturbance but gave instructions that he should be frequently observed.
  • On 23rd March 1990, C’s partner hanged himself in his cell, with there being an 8-minute gap between when he was last observed and when his suicide attempt was discovered. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, he died a week later.
  • It was observed that the door hatch through which C’s partner had tied his shirt should not have been left open in an occupied cell.
  • C sued D under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for negligently causing the death of C’s partner.


  • Was C’s partner’s suicide attempt an intervening act that broke the chain of causation between D’s breach of duty and the death?
  • Was the suicide attempt a negligent act contributing to the death of C’s partner, and thus reduce the damaged awarded? 

Held by the House of Lords

  • Owing to the complete control that the police exercised over prisoners in custody and the stresses inherent in the custodial situation, the police owed a duty to prevent such people from self-harm.
  • The duty represented an exception to the general rule that a deliberate act by a person of sound mind taking advantage of the defendant’s negligent act would destroy the causative link from the breach of duty.
  • Both the police, who had been negligent in leaving the hatch open, and C’s partner, who had responsibility for his own life, were the causes of the death. As such, C’s partner was held contributorily negligent, and damages were reduced by 50%.

Lord Hope

  • “Similarly, I do not see how what occurred in this case could be said to amount to a novus actus interveniens. There was no “new” act here at all. The act by which the deceased killed himself was the very act which the Commissioner was under a duty to prevent by not leaving the wicket gate open when the deceased was in his cell and thus providing him with the means of hanging himself. The chain of causation was not broken…Here the wrongful act was the cause of harm because it created the opportunity for the deliberate act of self-harm. The suicide was a foreseeable consequence of the failure in duty which occurred when the deceased, who was a known suicide risk, was placed in a cell which provided him with the opportunity to carry out that act” [381].
  • While the finding that the deceased was of sound mind will be questioned, it is how prior judges proceeded on the evidence and we must accept that evidence. This means there is no basis of diminished mental capacity that would minimise the deceased’s share of responsibility. Moreover, the contribution which he made was clearly substantial. It being done within minutes of the last check of the cell indicates his determination to seize the opportunity immediately before the next check.
  • However, the defects in the cell door fell clearly within prior warnings given to the police. Anyone taking reasonable care to prevent the deceased from committing suicide should have appreciated that these defects would provide him with the opportunity of taking that step once unobserved.