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999 calls: When do assurances of help give rise to a duty of care?

The working assumption of most police lawyers is that a common law duty of care will not arise where call handlers tell 999 callers that the police will attend and assist. The judgment in Sherratt v Chief Constable of GMP [2018] EWHC 1746 (QB) demonstrates that a more careful analysis is required. In this case, some fairly common and non-specific assurances were sufficient to give rise to a duty of care.

The facts of this case are tragic. At 6.44pm on a Sunday evening an experienced civilian call handler employed by the police, received a 999 call from SB. SB told the call handler of her grave concerns for the welfare of her daughter, GB. GB was aged 37 and the mother of 2 infant children.

The call handler graded the call as an ‘emergency attendance’. No criticism was made of that decision. Shortly afterwards, at 6.49pm, the call was downgraded to ‘priority attendance’. Officers attended GB’s home address at 10.19pm but there was no response and the house was in darkness. They did not gain access. Officers returned at 8.17am the following morning. One of GB’s children let the police into the house. Inside the house they found GB, deceased. She had overdosed on prescription medication.

The 999 call at 6.44pm included the following information:

SB told the call handler she was very frightened for her daughter. SB had been trying to find an emergency social worker for GB. GB had a history of social services involvement. GB was “at the end of her tether” and had been trying to take some tablets earlier that day. GB was on anti-depressants and that a person had been battling with GB to stop her taking an overdose. SB was herself unwell and could not get to GB to help her. GB had been talking about booking herself into hospital, and GB needed to go to hospital before she hurt herself.

In response the 999 handler told SB not to worry about the situation and that officers would be sent to the address: “let me get some officers on the way first of all…” No particular timeframe was given for the police’s arrival. In relation to getting GB to hospital, the call handler told SB “you leave that with us”.

This limited information (together with some other discussion) was found to amount to an assurance that the police would respond to what was an emergency by forthwith dispatching officers to the house as a priority step and that if GB required a hospital transfer would be arranged by the police rather than SB.

SB’s evidence was that she relied on the information given to her by the call handler and left the matter to the police, rather than trying to take further steps herself.

It was agreed between the parties that:

  1. Absent some special feature, no sufficient relationship of proximity exists between a Chief Constable and a member the public who seeks the police’s assistance;
  2. As a matter of public policy the police generally owe no private law duty of care to victims or witnesses.

The Claimant argued for a duty on the following basis: The Defendant’s officers and staff in taking SB’s call and informing her that they would deal with the incident and agreeing to dispatch officers, accepted particular responsibility for the welfare of the Deceased. SB relied on the assurances, in that she had left the matter for the police to deal with.

Reliance was placed on Kent v Griffiths [2001] 1 QB 36. In Kent, a doctor had called 999 on behalf of a patient who urgently needed to go to hospital. The doctor was assured that the ambulance would arrive within minutes. The doctor relied on that assurance and waited for the ambulance rather than using his own car to take the patient to hospital. In Kent, those circumstances were held to give rise to a duty of care.

This case was somewhat unusual as assurances were made to SB (the mother of the deceased, GB) and she placed reliance on them. There was no evidence of any contact between the Police and GB. When she took her life, it is presumed that was done without knowledge of what had passed between her mother and the police. Accordingly the police argued that there could not be any assumption of responsibility to the deceased. The police argued that on the facts this was not an assumption of responsibility.

The Claimant was successful at trial. The Defendant appealed.

The Defendant argued:

  1. On the facts, this was not an assumption of responsibility case.
  2. The Claimant was impermissibly seeking to impose a private law duty on the police owed to the Deceased to restrain or control the Deceased’s own conduct or to deal with the aftermath of her own conduct but without there being any relevant prior relationship between the Deceased and the police.

The Defendant’s appeal was dismissed.

The High Court (Mr Justice King) had no hesitation in finding that the limited information passed to SB amounted to an assurance sufficient to amount to an assumption of responsibility. The case was to be distinguished from the facts of previous cases where no such duty arose in the handling of emergency calls.

Particular reliance was placed on the following:

  • GB (as reported to the police) was obviously a vulnerable individual in need of welfare assistance.
  • The police offered to provide that assistance.
  • It should not matter that that assistance was sought not by the GB directly but by SB on her behalf or that the assurances were given by the police not to the GB directly but to the person who it was known was seeking assistance on her behalf.
  • The facts of this case were considered to be broadly analogous to those in Kent, where the assurance was given to the doctor rather than the patient directly and where the reliance was that of the doctor rather than the patient.
  • There was no distinction to be drawn between cases involving the ambulance service and the police.
  • There was no merit in a distinction between a duty of care to protect a person from an external threat and one to protect a person from their own actions.

In short:

a. The mere answering of a 999 call by the relevant emergency service does not of itself give rise to a duty of care.

b. Attending the call is not an assumption of responsibility such as to give rise to a duty of care.

c. In dealing with a call there may be an assumption of responsibility. There has to be something, on the evidence, to demonstrate the relationship of proximity such as to justify the imposition of a duty.

d. In this case that relationship was made out due to a general assurance that the policy would attend promptly, that police knew the person was vulnerable, and that they would ‘deal with the situation’.

e. Reliance needs to be placed on the assurances before liability can arise.

This case is expressly a decision limited to its own facts. However, the facts of this case are not all that rare. Many calls to the emergency services involve vulnerable people. Many are seeking urgent assistance. Call handlers routinely make assurances that officers will attend promptly. The makers of 999 calls are normally inclined to do as they are told by the call handler.

The case is certainly a timely reminder that 999 calls may well give rise to liability and a close analysis of the facts of any particular case is required.