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Supreme Court judgment in case concerning police accountability for fatal failure in assessing domestic violence victims

Supreme Court judgment in case concerning police accountability for fatal failure in assessing domestic violence victims

Today (28 January 2015) the Supreme Court has given judgment in the case of Michael and others v. Chief Constable of South Wales Police and Chief Constable of Gwent Police. This is a landmark case dealing with fatal domestic violence against women and police accountability. Hopkin Murray Beskine acted for  Welsh Women’s Aid, who  intervened in the Supreme Court in support of the family of Joanna Michael, along with Refuge and Liberty. We continue to strongly support the family’s quest for justice for Joanna Michael.

In August 2009 Joanna Michael was stabbed to death in Cardiff by her ex-partner when waiting for a police response to two 999 calls. In her first call Joanna had made clear that her life had been threatened by her former partner. She said she had been assaulted by her ex-partner and he had left in a car, saying he would return to kill her. However, the threat to her life was not passed on by the call handler. When the information was received by a police patrol the response was downgraded in priority.  She made a further call which ended in her screaming. Tragically, when the police arrived she had died. Her ex-partner is now serving a life sentence for her murder.

The police have accepted that the handling of Joanna’s calls was seriously defective. In 2010 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that she was failed by Gwent Police, South Wales Police and the 999 system itself. The IPCC's independent report was highly critical of both systemic and individual failings in the case.

Since Joanna’s killing her family have sought to obtain justice for her.  Her family have brought civil claims against South Wales Police and Gwent Police under the Human Rights Act 1998, for breach of the right to life protected by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and for negligence. The Court of Appeal’s judgment in this case had allowed consideration of whether the police could be held liable under the Human Rights Act 1998 for a failure to take reasonable steps to protect Joanna’s right to life and prevent her murder.  The police appealed against this finding to the Supreme Court. At the same time Joanna’s family’s appealed to the Supreme Court against the Court of Appeal’s finding  that it is not possible under English Law for a police force to be liable in the law of negligence for its handling of emergency calls. 

In its judgment the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the appeal by Gwent and South Wales police, finding that the issue of whether the police response violated Joanna’s right to life should go to trial. However, the Court (by a 5 to 2 majority) also rejected the family’s appeal, finding that under English Law, at present, the police cannot be held liable in negligence in relation to the handling of emergency calls.

A copy of the judgment can be found here

More information about the case and a statement by Welsh Women’s Aid can be found here :

More information about Welsh Women’s Aid  is available at www.welshwomensaid.org.uk



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