Supreme Court gives permission in 999 test case.

Emergency Services test case - the Supreme Court have today granted permission to appeal in Michael v Gwent & South Wales Police.  Nicholas Bowen QC acts for the Claimants.  The case is a damages claim (negligence & human rights) based upon systemic and individual police failings which led to a critical delay in the 999 system and the failure to stop the murder of Cardiff mother of two.  The appeal and cross appeal in the Supreme Court will test (1) the limits of the core immunity in negligence (Hill / Smith etc) (2) whether Alexandrou v Oxford stops a claim based upon a delay in answering an emergency call and (3) whether the combined faults of separate public bodies can be aggregated to establish a breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


His Honour Judge Milwyn Jarman sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge in the Cardiff High Court refused to strike out a negligence and human rights damages claim brought by the parents and two children of Joanna Michael a 23 year old Cardiff woman who was murdered by her former boyfriend Cyron Williams in the early hours of 5th August 2009. Williams had broken into her house assaulted her and then left, vowing to return imminently to kill her. She immediately (2.29am) called 999 but because of a technical problem the call was taken by Gwent not South Wales Police (SWP) wasting a precious 5 minutes. Joanna told the Gwent 999 operator that Williams would imminently return and intended to kill her; she was told that she had come through to the wrong force but that SWP would call her back. The information, including Joanna's telephone number, was then passed to the SWP control room but the Gwent operator omitted to tell them of William's murderous intent. SWP downgraded the call from an immediate ("level 1") response to a priority ("level 2") response so the officers though they had had 60 minutes to attend the scene. SWP did not call Joanna back and officers were only dispatched when Gwent received a second 999 call from Joanna 10 minutes later during which the operator could only hear screaming. Williams had returned and stabbed Joanna 72 times in the presence of her two children. The officers arrived 5 minutes later. The Independent Police Complaints Commission later found that the officers could and should have attended within 5 minutes of the original call. Their report contained a devastating critique of the competence of both police forces and the way in which they dealt with allegations of domestic violence (in this and other cases).


The police were seeking to stop the case at an early stage by relying on a rule of law (the "Hill principle") that the police owed no duty of care in relation to damage caused by third parties and where the subject of the legal case was an attack on the way the police chose to "investigate and suppress crime". Since the "Hill" case the police have been effectively immune from legal attack and protected by the Judges on the grounds that the public interest is served not by an individual right to compensation but by the police being able to investigate crime and protect the public free from the shadow of litigation. The Judge refused the police permission to appeal and the case proceeded to the Court of Appeal.


The Court of Appeal (LJJs Longmore, Richards & Davis) allowed the Defendants’ appeal against the negligence claim (based on the Hill immunity) but dismissed the appeal against the Article 2 (Osman) claim based upon the immediacy of the risk and systems failures.  Although Davis LJ dissented the majority agreed it arguable that for the purposes of the Human Rights Act it was legitimate to aggregate the individual violations of both Forces when considering whether there had been a breach of the positive duty to protect life pursuant to Article 2.


The case will now proceed to a substantive appeal before the Justices of the Supreme Court, some time in 2014.


Joanna's mother Angela said "We have been and remain devastated by Joanna's death and are determined that the fatal errors are never repeated again. Two women every week are killed by their partners and things never seem to improve. We obviously know it was not the police who murdered Joanna but they had the power to save her but didn't because of simple carelessness and a failure to follow their own procedures. They have never apologized and we want them to be held to account in the Courts for their lack of professionalism which we believe led directly to our daughters death."


"Although it still feels like a bit of a David versus Goliath battle we know we have very strong arguments and we are extremely grateful that the Legal Services Commission has backed our case."


The family are being represented by leading Cardiff law firm Martin Prowell & Co. The family's solicitor Hywell Davies says, "We are delighted we've been able to have our very serious legal issues heard by the High Court Judge. This case doesn't just affect Joanna's family, it goes right to the heart of the police's obliga-tion to protect the victims of domestic abuse."


Martin Prowel & Co. solicitors have instructed London-based Nicholas Bowen QC of Doughty Street Chambers. Nicholas is a specialist in civil and public law, tort and human rights claims against public authorities.


To view details of the story as reported on the BBC website please click here.


To read the July 2012 Court of Appeal judgment click here.

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