In a decision of enormous significance to police forces nationwide, a crime victim who was beaten almost to death by a baseball bat-wielding gang – and who blames police for responding late to an anguished 999 call – has had his compensation hopes boosted by the Court of Appeal.
The man’s lawyers argued that Humberside Police violated his human rights by taking 26 minutes to get a team of officers to the scene of the attack. The Court acknowledged that his claim that the force did not do enough to protect him from an imminent threat of death or serious injury was a matter of ‘considerable importance for the police’.
The man was an innocent bystander when a gang of youths armed with baseball bats – who were looking for someone else – attacked him. He suffered grave head injuries, resulting in short and long-term memory loss. After a police investigation, his attackers were arrested, convicted and handed lengthy sentences.
The first 999 call had gone out from the scene shortly after 1am and the operator had been told of ‘someone getting hurt’. The first reference to the man by name came almost seven minutes into the call when reference was made to him being beaten. The first officer arrived within less than 15 minutes of the call- the force’s target response time. However there was an ‘unexplained’ 11-minute delay in a police response team being dispatched and it did not arrive until 26 minutes after the 999 call was connected.
The man’s claim that the force had failed in its duty under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which enshrines the right to life – was initially struck out by a judge on the basis that it had no reasonable prospect of success. However, the Court reinstated his case and directed a full trial of the action.
The Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, said that the decision to strike out the man’s claim without a full hearing was ‘arbitrary and unprincipled’. The force’s plea that officers could never have been at the scene quickly enough to save the man from injury was simply ‘irrelevant’ to the force’s potential liability under the Convention, he ruled.
The force’s lawyers argued that a ruling in the man’s favour would cast a ‘wholly disproportionate burden’ on the police. However, the Court found that the duty to protect potential victims from an immediate threat of serious injury or death arose at the moment that the 999 call was received and not when the man’s name was first mentioned by the caller.
Lord Dyson noted: “The tone and contents of the 999 calls suggested that there was every reason to think that there was an imminent likelihood that the young men would injure or kill one or more persons who were in the vicinity. The facts strongly suggest that to have required the police to respond in accordance with the target of 15 minutes would not have imposed an unreasonable or disproportionate burden on them. The essential question is whether the police knew or ought to have known that there was a real and immediate risk to the life of the victim of the violence and whether they did all that could reasonable have been expected of them to prevent it materialising”.