Barrett v Ministry of Defence (1994)

English Tort Law

Barrett v Ministry of Defence
‘Fra Balestrand’ by Even Ulving

Self-intoxication when subject to unenforced regulatory powers, while seemingly harmless in the early stages, becomes less a voluntary act than an inevitability when boredom and recklessness result in a fatality. Sadly on this occasion, the celebratory rituals of a naval base exposed a regime based upon irresponsibility rather than organised discipline.

In litigation by writ during early 1990, the widow of a naval airman sought damages for negligence arising from a breach of duty of care through the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and the Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1934, after her late husband was found dead in his bunk.

In late January 1988, the deceased was celebrating his 30th birthday and pending promotion while stationed at the Barduffos Royal Naval Air Station, Norway, a base known for its leniency towards off-duty drinking, despite recognised preventative guidelines and clear definitions as per s.28 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which read:

“A person is drunk . . . if owing to the influence of alcohol or any drug, whether alone or in combination with any other circumstances, he is unfit to be entrusted with his duty or with any duty which he might be called upon to perform, or behaves in a disorderly manner or in a manner likely to bring discredit on Her Majesty’s service.”

While art.1810 of the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy 1967 also explained how:

“It is the particular duty of all officers, fleet chief petty officers, chief petty officers, petty officers and leading ratings actively to discourage drunkenness, overindulgence in alcohol and drug abuse by naval personnel both on board and ashore. Should a man appear to be suffering from any of these abuses they are immediately to take appropriate action to prevent any likely breaches of discipline, possible injury or fatality, including medical assistance if it is available.”

On the night before his death, the deceased had consumed enough alcohol to lapse into unconsciousness shortly before midnight, after which he was taken to his room and left in the recovery position. It was during the following three hours that he was visited only three times, after which he had vomited and asphyxiated through inhalation of the vomitus. Within the base codes of conduct was guidance for dealing with inebriated servicemen, within which it read:

“(i) Keep the offender out of distance of officers or senior ratings so that he cannot commit himself by striking or by insubordination. Avoid altercation, (ii) Have him examined by the duty M.O. (iii) Should he be in a state of collapse, make sure he does not lie on his back so that he can suffocate if he vomits. See that he is sighted every few minutes.”

In the first hearing, the judge ruled that the appellants had, by virtue of their inability to enforce the regulations and codes of conduct, failed to provide a sufficient duty of care when managing the deceased and awarded damages of around £214,000, with a one-third reduction for the contributory negligence through over-consumption of alcohol.

Presented to the Court of Appeal on grounds of erring in law when comparing the Queen’s Regulations with the Highway Code and thereby over-extending the liability of the Ministry when passing judgment, the Court reexamined the facts, along with the threshold of culpability, whereupon it held that while the appellants had failed to uphold a reasonable standard of care, the choice to drink excessively was undoubtedly the primary cause of death, at which point the Court reversed the proportion of liability in favour of the appellants thus reducing the damages to roughly £71,000.

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998

Insight | February 2017

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998
Image: ‘Against Forgetting’ by Marcia Bushnell

The Human Rights Act was brought into being as a consequence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was first formulated by the Council of Europe in 1950.

Founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as used by the United Nations), ten countries first rallied for its formation, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The Convention took effect in September 1953, with the primary directive of protecting specific fundamental rights among Member States of the Council of Europe, while the core values of the UK constitution enjoyed presumptions of liberty, representative government and the rule of law.

Before the ECHR became intrinsic to domestic law, Ministers often found themselves abusing discretionary powers, which amounted to a constitution largely beyond reproach, relying instead upon collective political norms for enforcement. This protracted period of neglect gave rise to an increase in administrative jurisdiction, and during the 1980s the courts began to adopt a more concrete conception of the rule of law, preferring instead to propagate such values as ‘freedom of expression’ ‘equality’ and ‘freedom from destitution’. However, presumptions followed that common law infringement upon these values would deem statute intervention unlawful, and it soon became conventional thinking; particularly in the well known R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Brind, where the domestic courts held that as the ECHR was not part of English law, the government was able to restrict media coverage of Irish extremist groups, despite clear encroachment upon the right to freedom of expression, and a sadly failed appeal by the journalists fiercely defending that right.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the British constitution accepted that using convention as a means of entrusting civil liberties could no longer be tolerated, and so on 9 November 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted by Royal assent. From 2 October 2000 onward, all rights and freedoms previously safeguard by the ECHR were now directly enforceable though UK common law, and the sovereignty of Parliament was agreed.

This upheaval in institutional law was particularly significant, in that for the first time English judicial authority was awarded greater scope for case interpretation, where historically such matters were determined through ministerial debate. This was however, a change that was not without its detractors, nor ignorant of an entrenched inclination to overlook common law in lieu of political fervour.