Hertfordshire Police v Van Colle; Smith v Chief Constable of Sussex Police: HL 30 Jul 2008

Police Obligations to Witnesses is Limited

A prosecution witness was murdered by the accused shortly before his trial. The parents of the deceased alleged that the failure of the police to protect their son was a breach of article 2.
Held: The House was asked ‘If the police are alerted to a threat that D may kill or inflict violence on V, and the police take no action to prevent that occurrence, and D does kill or inflict violence on V, may V or his relatives obtain civil redress against the police, and if so, how and in what circumstances?’
The police appeal in each case was allowed. The fact that Mr Van Colle was to be a witness in a criminal prosecution did not place him in a category to which the test in Osman applied, and there was no valid basis for concluding that the police ought to have known that there was a real and immediate risk to his life. However, if the police had possessed fuller knowledge, they would have had an operational obligation to take all reasonable steps to protect the deceased’s life.
Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Haywood said: ‘police are inevitably faced . . with a conflict of interest between the person threatened and the maker of the threat. If the police would be liable in damages to the former for not taking sufficiently strong action but not to the latter for acting too strongly, the police, subconsciously or not, would be inclined to err on the side of over-reaction. I would regard this precisely as inducing in them a detrimentally defensive frame of mind.’


Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, Lord Carswell, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood


[2008] UKHL 50, [2008] 3 All ER 977, [2008] 3 WLR 593, Times 01-Aug-2008, [2009] PIQR P2, [2008] UKHRR 967, [2008] HRLR 44, [2009] 1 AC 225, [2009] 1 Cr App R 12, [2009] LS Law Medical 1


Bailii, HL


European Convention on Human Rights 2


England and Wales


At First InstanceVan Colle v Hertfordshire Police QBD 10-Mar-2006
The claimants claimed for the estate of their murdered son. He had been waiting to give evidence in a criminal trial, and had asked the police for support having received threats. Other witnesses had also suffered intimidation including acts of . .
Appeal fromSmith v Chief Constable of Sussex Police CA 5-Feb-2008
Allegation f failure by the police to protect the claimant from a violent partner . .
Appeal fromVan Colle and Another v Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Police CA 24-Apr-2007
The deceased had acted as a witness in an intended prosecution. He had sought protection after being threatened. No effective protection was provided, and he was murdered. The chief constable appealed a finding of liability.
Held: The . .
CitedOsman v The United Kingdom ECHR 28-Oct-1998
Police’s Complete Immunity was Too Wide
(Grand Chamber) A male teacher developed an obsession with a male pupil. He changed his name by deed poll to the pupil’s surname. He was required to teach at another school. The pupil’s family’s property was subjected to numerous acts of vandalism, . .
CitedIn re Officer L HL 31-Jul-2007
Police officers appealed against refusal of orders protecting their anonymity when called to appear before the Robert Hamill Inquiry.
Held: ‘The tribunal accordingly approached the matter properly under article 2 in seeking to ascertain . .
CitedEdwards v The United Kingdom ECHR 14-Mar-2002
The deceased, a young man of mixed race, had been placed in a cell with another prisoner who was known to be violent, racist, and mentally unstable. The staff knew that the panic button was defective. The deceased was murdered by his cell-mate. His . .
CitedRegina (A and others) (Widgery Soldiers) v Lord Saville of Newdigate and Others CA 19-Dec-2001
The court would apply common sense in deciding whether soldier witnesses should be obliged to attend in person at an enquiry in Londonderry, where they claimed their lives would be at risk. It was not appropriate to seek to define what would be . .
CitedDorset 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 . .
CitedSmith v Littlewoods Organisation Limited (Chief Constable, Fife Constabulary, third party); Maloco v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd HL 1987
The defendant acquired a semi derelict cinema with a view to later development of the site. A fire started by others spread to the pursuer’s adjoining property.
Held: The defendants were not liable in negligence. The intervention of a third . .
CitedAncell v McDermott CA 29-Jan-1993
The plaintiff sought damages in negligence. Diesel had been spilled on the road. Though police officers saw it and took basic steps, the deceased was in a car which skidded on the diesel some time later. . .
CitedGlamorgan Coal Company Ltd v Glamorganshire Standing Joint Committee CA 1916
The court considered the duties on police constables to protect property.
Held: Pickford LJ said: ‘[The defendants] are the police authority and have to make proper police arrangements to maintain the peace. If one party to a dispute is . .
CitedGlasbrook Brothers Limited v Glamorgan County Council HL 1925
A colliery manager asked for police protection for his colliery during a strike. He wanted police officers to be billeted on the premises. The senior police officer for the area was willing to provide protection by a mobile force, but he refused to . .
CitedRegina v Dytham CACD 1979
A constable was 30 yards away from the entrance to a club, from which he saw a man ejected. There was a fight involving cries and screams and the man was beaten and kicked to death in the gutter outside the club. The constable made no move to . .
CitedBrooks v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and others HL 21-Apr-2005
The claimant was with Stephen Lawrence when they were both attacked and Mr Lawrence killed. He claimed damages for the negligent way the police had dealt with his case, and particularly said that they had failed to assess him as a victim of crime, . .
CitedGibson v Orr, the Chief Constable, Strathlclyde Police SCS 26-Feb-1999
The pursuer and his passengers were injured when he drove off a bridge which had been damaged in a severe rainstorm. He claimed in negligence against the police, who had been informed of the collapse of the bridge, but had not erected any warning . .
CitedKnightley v Johns and others CA 27-Mar-1981
There had been an accident in a tunnel, blocking it. The defendant inspector ordered a traffic constable to ride into the tunnel on his motorcycle against the flow of traffic. The constable crashed and sought damages for negligence against the . .
CitedRigby and another v Chief Constable of Northamptonshire 1985
The police were found liable to pay damages for negligence having fired a gas canister into the plaintiffs’ gunsmith’s hop premises in order to flush out a dangerous psychopath. There had been a real and substantial fire risk in firing the canister . .
CitedAncell v McDermott CA 29-Jan-1993
The plaintiff sought damages in negligence. Diesel had been spilled on the road. Though police officers saw it and took basic steps, the deceased was in a car which skidded on the diesel some time later. . .
CitedClough v Bussan 1990
The defendant, after a car crash, joined in the police as third party defendants, saying that they had contributed to a car accident by failing to do anything about traffic lights which they knew were out of order.
Held: The action against the . .
CitedCaparo Industries Plc v Dickman and others HL 8-Feb-1990
Limitation of Loss from Negligent Mis-statement
The plaintiffs sought damages from accountants for negligence. They had acquired shares in a target company and, relying upon the published and audited accounts which overstated the company’s earnings, they purchased further shares.
Held: The . .
CitedLavis v Kent County Council QBD 18-Feb-1992
The plaintiff had received serious injuries whilst riding his motor cycle at a road junction for which the defendants were responsible. He alleged that they were liable to him for failing to ensure that proper warning signs were placed at the . .
CitedAlexandrou v Oxford (Chief Constable of the Merseyside Police) CA 16-Feb-1990
A shop was burgled. The shop-owner blamed the police for their negligent investigation.
Held: The police were not liable in negligence. . .
CitedOsman and another v Ferguson and another CA 7-Oct-1992
Limits of Police duty to protect
A schoolmaster developed an infatuation for a teenage pupil. It led to the killing of the pupil’s father, the wounding of the pupil, the wounding of a deputy headmaster and the killing of the deputy headmaster’s son. Mr Osman’s widow and the pupil . .
CitedWainwright and another v Home Office HL 16-Oct-2003
The claimant and her son sought to visit her other son in Leeds Prison. He was suspected of involvement in drugs, and therefore she was subjected to strip searches. There was no statutory support for the search. The son’s penis had been touched . .
CitedJD, MAK and RK, RK and Another v East Berkshire Community Health, Dewsbury Health Care NHS Trust and Kirklees Metropolitan Council, Oldham NHS Trust and Dr Blumenthal CA 31-Jul-2003
Damages were sought by parents for psychological harm against health authorities for the wrongful diagnosis of differing forms of child abuse. They appealed dismissal of their awards on the grounds that it was not ‘fair just and reasonable’ to . .
CitedOLL Ltd v Secretary of State for Transport QBD 22-Jul-1997
Coastguard Not liable in Negligence
Eight children with a teacher and two instructors set off on a canoeing trip but did not return. They got into difficulties at sea. Two became separated from the rest. The canoes capsized and sank. Some tried to swim ashore. Two more members became . .
CitedCalvelli and Ciglio v Italy ECHR 17-Jan-2002
The applicants’ baby had died shortly after birth in 1987. They complained about the medical care. The complaint was not investigated speedily by the authority, resulting in a criminal complaint becoming time barred after a conviction in 1994 was . .

Cited by:

CitedRe E (A Child); E v Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Another (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and others intervening) HL 12-Nov-2008
(Northern Ireland) Children had been taken to school in the face of vehement protests from Loyalists. The parents complained that the police had failed to protect them properly, since the behaviour was so bad as to amount to inhuman or degrading . .
CitedSavage v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (MIND intervening) HL 10-Dec-2008
The deceased had committed suicide on escaping from a mental hospital. The Trust appealed against a refusal to strike out the claim that that they had been negligent in having inadequate security.
Held: The Trust’s appeal failed. The fact that . .
CitedTrent Strategic Health Authority v Jain and Another HL 21-Jan-2009
The claimants’ nursing home business had been effectively destroyed by the actions of the Authority which had applied to revoke their licence without them being given notice and opportunity to reply. They succeeded on appeal, but the business was by . .
CitedMitchell and Another v Glasgow City Council HL 18-Feb-2009
(Scotland) The pursuers were the widow and daughter of a tenant of the respondent who had been violently killed by his neighbour. They said that the respondent, knowing of the neighbour’s violent behaviours had a duty of care to the deceased and . .
CitedDesmond v The Chief Constable Of Nottinghamshhire Police QBD 1-Oct-2009
The claimant appealed against the striking out of parts of his claim alleging negligence and misfeasance. He had been arrested on suspicion of indecent assault, but then was fully cleared by a third officer. When he later applied for an enhanced CRB . .
CitedRabone and Another v Pennine Care NHS Trust CA 21-Jun-2010
The claimant’s daughter had committed suicide after being given home leave on a secure ward by the respondent mental hospital. A claim in negligence had been settled, but the parents now appealed refusal of their claim that the hospital had failed . .
CitedQ, Regina (on The Application of) v Q Constabulary and Another Admn 17-Mar-2011
The claimant renewed his request for an order against the defendant that he should be given a place on a witness protection scheme. He had given evidence for the prosecution in a gangland murder trial. A risk assessment had identified a risk ‘real . .
CitedEquality and Human Rights Commission v Prime Minister and Others Admn 3-Oct-2011
The defendant had published a set of guidelines for intelligence officers called upon to detain and interrogate suspects. The defendant said that the guidelines could only be tested against individual real life cases, and that the court should not . .
CitedRabone and Another v Pennine Care NHS Foundation SC 8-Feb-2012
The claimant’s daughter had committed suicide whilst on home leave from a hospital where she had stayed as a voluntary patient with depression. Her admission had followed a suicide attempt. The hospital admitted negligence but denied that it owed . .
CitedAn Informer v A Chief Constable CA 29-Feb-2012
The claimant appealed against dismissal of his claim for damages against the police. He had provided them with information, but he said that they had acted negligently and in breach of contract causing him financial loss. The officer handling his . .
CitedKent County Council, Regina (on The Application of) v HM Coroner for The County of Kent (North-West District) and Others Admn 15-Oct-2012
The council sought review of the coroner’s decision that the inquest would be an article 2 inquest and with a jury. The deceased was 14 years old and had taken methadone. In the months before his death, he had had involvement with the council’s . .
See AlsoVan Colle and Van Colle v The United Kingdom ECHR 9-Feb-2010
Statement of Facts . .
See AlsoVan Colle v The United Kingdom ECHR 13-Nov-2012
. .
CitedPBD and Another v Greater Manchester Police QBD 18-Nov-2013
The claimant had acted as police informant for the defendant. He said that the defendant had wrongfully released his identity resulting in him having to seek witness relocation with consequential losses for himself and his partner the co-claimant. . .
CitedBirks, Regina (On the Application of) v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis Admn 25-Sep-2014
The claimant police officer sought judicial review of a decision to continue his suspension. He had been investigated and cleared after a death in custody. He sought to join the Church of England Ministry and was offered a post. He was re-assured . .
CitedMichael and Others v The Chief Constable of South Wales Police and Another SC 28-Jan-2015
The claimants asserted negligence in the defendant in failing to provide an adequate response to an emergency call, leading, they said to the death of their daughter at the hands of her violent partner. They claimed also under the 1998 Act. The . .
CitedCommissioner of Police of The Metropolis v DSD and Another SC 21-Feb-2018
Two claimants had each been sexually assaulted by a later notorious, multiple rapist. Each had made complaints to police about their assaults but said that no effective steps had been taken to investigate the serious complaints.
Held: The . .
CitedSXH v The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) SC 11-Apr-2017
The Court was asked: ‘Does a decision by a public prosecutor to bring criminal proceedings against a person fall potentially within the scope of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in circumstances where a) the prosecutor has . .
CitedPoole Borough Council v GN and Another SC 6-Jun-2019
This appeal is concerned with the liability of a local authority for what is alleged to have been a negligent failure to exercise its social services functions so as to protect children from harm caused by third parties. The principal question of . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Police, Negligence, Human Rights

Leading Case

Updated: 11 February 2022; Ref: scu.271277