Swinney and Another v Chief Constable of Northumbria: CA 22 Mar 1996

The plaintiff, a woman and her husband, had passed on information in confidence to the police about the identity of a person implicated in the killing of a police officer, expressing her concern that she did not want the source of the information to be traced back to her. The information was recorded, naming the plaintiff, in a document which was left in an unattended police vehicle, which was broken into and the document was stolen, came into the possession of the person implicated. The plaintiff was threatened with violence and arson and suffered psychiatric damage. The plaintiff’s claim in negligence against the police was struck out, but re-instated.
Held: Police may exceptionally be liable in negligence in criminal investigations. There is a special relationship between the plaintiffs and the defendant, which is sufficiently proximate. Proximity is shown by the police assuming responsibility, and the plaintiffs relying upon that assumption of responsibility, for preserving the confidentiality of the information which, if it fell into the wrong hands, was likely to expose the first plaintiff and members of her family to a special risk of damage from the criminal acts of others, greater than the general risk which ordinary members of the public must endure with phlegmatic fortitude.
Peter Gibson LJ said: ‘the Court must evaluate all the public policy considerations that may apply.’ and the position of a police informer required special consideration from the viewpoint of public policy.
Hirst LJ said:’As Laws J. pointed out in his judgment, there are here other considerations of public policy which also have weight, namely, the need to preserve the springs of information, to protect informers, and to encourage them to come forward without an undue fear of the risk that their identity will subsequently become known to the suspect or to his associates. In my judgment, public policy in this field must be assessed in the round, which in this case means assessing the applicable considerations advanced in the Hill case [1989] A.C 53, which are, of course, of great importance, together with the considerations just mentioned in relation to informers, in order to reach a fair and just decision on public policy.’
Ward LJ said: ‘it is incontrovertible that the fight against crime is daily dependent upon information fed to the police by members of the public, often at real risk of villainous retribution from the criminals and their associates. The public interest will not accept that good citizens should be expected to entrust information to the police, without also expecting that they are entrusting their safety to the police. The public interest would be affronted were it to be the law that members of the public should be expected, in the execution of public service, to undertake the risk of harm to themselves without the police, in return, being expected to take no more than reasonable care to ensure that the confidential information imparted to them is protected. The welfare of the community at large demands the encouragement of the free flow of information without inhibition. Accordingly, it is arguable that there is a duty of care, and that no consideration of public policy precludes the prosecution of the plaintiffs’ claim, which will be judged on its merits later.’

Lord Justice Hirst, Lord Justice Ward
Times 28-Mar-1996, [1997] QBD 464, [1996] EWCA Civ 1322, [1996] 3 WLR 968, [1996] 3 All ER 449, [1996] PNLR 473
England and Wales
CitedHill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire HL 28-Apr-1987
No General ty of Care Owed by Police
The mother of a victim of the Yorkshire Ripper claimed in negligence against the police alleging that they had failed to satisfy their duty to exercise all reasonable care and skill to apprehend the perpetrator of the murders and to protect members . .

Cited by:
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, . .
CitedMullaney v Chief Constable of West Midlands Police CA 15-May-2001
The claimant police officer was severely injured making an arrest. He claimed damages from the respondent for contributory negligence of other officers in failing to come to his assistance.
Held: If a police officer owes a duty of care to . .
See AlsoSwinney and another v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (No 2) QBD 25-May-1999
A police informant was owed a duty of confidentiality by the police. His information brought him into a special relationship with the police, and they could be liable in damages for failing to take reasonable steps to protect that confidence. . .
CitedVan 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 . .
CitedB and B v A County Council CA 21-Nov-2006
The claimants sought damages from the defendant local authority after their identities had been wrongfully revealed to the natural parents of the adoptees leading to a claimed campaign of harassment. The adopters has specifically requested that . .
CitedWelton, Welton v North Cornwall District Council CA 17-Jul-1996
The defendant authority appealed a finding that it was liable in negligence from the conduct of one of its environmental health officers. The plaintiff had set out to refurbish and open a restaurant. He said the officer gave him a list of things he . .
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 . .
CitedAXN v The Queen CACD 27-May-2016
The defendant argued that greater note should have been taken on his sentencing to allow for the assistance he had given to the police after his arrest.
Held: The current accepted practice is that the text of the letter from the police to the . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Police, Negligence, Litigation Practice

Leading Case

Updated: 14 November 2021; Ref: scu.89660