Swinney v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (1999)

Areas of applicable law: Tort law – Duty of care – Negligence – Psychiatric harm.

Main arguments in this case: In some circumstances it is possible that the police owe a duty of care to certain individuals.

Generally the police do not owe a duty of care to individuals as their duty of care lies for the general public as a whole. This issue was tackled in Hill v. Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (1989). However, if the police (or any public authority for this reason) have assumed liability towards an individual, then it is obliged to fulfil that obligation.

The fact of the case: In Swinney v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (No 2) (1999), the claimant was a publican and provided information to the police about a criminal who was involved in a hit and run incident in which a policeman was killed.

The pub landlord provided the information on the condition that it would be treated in strict confidence and her identity to remain anonymous. The criminal was known as a violent person and she feared retaliations. The police agreed to it. However, in the document that the police prepared, her identity and details of the information were revealed. The document was later stolen from an unattended police car and somehow got in the hands of the criminal.

What followed the stealing was a campaign of violent and abusive threats to the informant. The level of threats was so grave that the claimant suffered from psychiatric harm and as a consequence she had to give up her business.

The claimant brought a claim against the police. The police argued that the threats were coming from a third party and not from them (lack of proximity). It was also argued that the police should not be sued as it would go against the policy reason (as described in Hill).

The court of Appeal did not agree with these arguments. The information provided by the informant was obviously of a kind that if it was to fall in wrong hands, it would create severe problems for the claimant. The police knew it and by promising to keep it safe, they had taken an obligation.

On the policy grounds, the court held that the informant was not just an individual but having provided the information had formed a special relationship with the police and was owed a duty of care. The court further said that in this case the policy actually favoured the claimant’s case. If the police keep an informant’s confidentiality secure, that would encourage other individuals to come forward in fighting crimes.

However, the court found for the defendants as they had not acted in a way that would suggest they had breached their duty towards the claimant. Due to this reason the claimant lost her claim.

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