Public Body Duty of Care in Tort

Insight | February 2017

Public Body Duty of Care in Tort
Image: ‘Vicarious Trauma’ by Amy Gaskin

Within the field of tort, there are a number of victims that are recognisable for damages in extenuating scenarios. These include rescuers, involuntary participants, communicators of shocking news, witnesses to self-harm and those held under an assumption of responsibility by the defendant.

There are of course exemptions from such events, in particular public bodies (despite being funded by tax payers money). One argument for such paradoxical exclusion is that making public bodies pay for their mistakes would place a strain upon public services funds, and lead to division of public resources in times of need.

This ironically raises the question of whether liability should exist when the public body has the power to act despite no duty to do so? The House of Lords determined that no duty of care was owed in respect to negligent use of power, unless that action made the claimant’s situation worse than it was before, while jurisprudence around the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) altered the previous threshold regards duty of care.

In D v East Berkshire Community NHS Trust and others, ‘defensive practices’ were seen as a consequence of liability on the part of the local authority staff, which would compromise their standard of work, therefore it was subsequently felt that a duty of care was owed to children in extraction cases, but not to all parties.

In the earlier case Osman v Ferguson, and the later Osman v UK, the police were initially offered immunity from a duty of care until the parents of a murdered pupil appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), under the observance that while art.6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provided public body immunity, it denied the family from receiving a fair trial, while no attempts were made to distinguish Osman from the earlier Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, despite marked differences.

Of notable interest, is the knowledge that the fire service has no duty of care to respond to an emergency call or to turn up and attempt to fight a fire. It does however, have a positive duty not to make matters worse in the event that they do attend such events, albeit with the caveat that it does not have a duty of care to prevent the fire from spreading. On the upside, at least the ambulance service does owe a duty of care to individual claimants in specific circumstances, while also possessing a duty to respond to emergency calls, although this is only because the domestic courts view the service as an extension of the National Health Service (NHS), which itself owes a duty of care to all of its patients.

Much like the fire service before, the coastguard owes no duty of care to respond to calls from people in trouble at sea, only a duty to not make matters worse when they arrive. While in contrast, the British armed forces are only held to owe a duty of care when the defendant can be said to have assumed responsibility to the client, just as little comfort is taken in the knowledge that there is no duty of care owed to the public under battle conditions, or in times of threat.