Dorset Yacht Co Ltd -v- Home Office; HL 6-May-1970

A yacht was damaged by boys who had escaped from the supervision of prison officers in a nearby Borstal institution. The boat owners sued the Home Office alleging negligence by the prison officers.
Held: Any duty of a borstal officer to use reasonable care to prevent a borstal trainee from escaping from his custody, was owed only to persons whom he could reasonably foresee had property situated in the vicinity of the place of detention of the detainee, and which the detainee was likely to steal or to appropriate and damage in the course of eluding immediate pursuit and capture. Where human action forms one of the links between the original wrongdoing of the defendant and the plaintiff’s loss that action must ‘at least have been something very likely to happen if it is not to be regarded as novus actus interveniens breaking the chain of causation.’
Lord Reid said: ‘there must come a stage when the discretion is exercised so carelessly or unreasonably that there has been no real exercise of the discretion which Parliament has conferred. The person purporting to exercise his discretion has acted in abuse or excess of his power. Parliament cannot be supposed to have granted immunity to persons who do that.’
Lord Diplock described the process by which a legal principle was to be derived from authority, describing it as inductive, testing the characteristics of the cases: ‘This analysis leads to a proposition which can be stated in the form:
‘In all the decisions that have been analysed a duty of care has been held to exist wherever the conduct and the relationship possessed each of the characteristics A, B, C, D, etc, and has not so far been found to exist when any of these characteristics were absent.’
For the second stage, which is deductive and analytical, that proposition is converted to: ‘In all cases where the conduct and relationship possess each of the characteristics A, B, C, D, etc, a duty of care arises.’ The conduct and relationship involved in the case for decision is then analysed to ascertain whether they possess each of these characteristics. If they do the conclusion follows that a duty of care does arise in the case for decision’

Court: HL
Date: 06-May-1970
Judges: Reid, Morris of Borth-y-Guest, Pearson, Diplock, LL, Viscount Dilhorne
Links: Bailii,
References: [1970] AC 1004, [1970] 2 WLR 1140, [1970] 2 All ER 94, [1970] UKHL 2
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