In a case which helps to define the difficult balance to be struck between the rights of the individual and the public interest in effective policing, a frail pensioner, who was badly injured when crushed beneath a burly police officer who was pursuing a suspect, has had her compensation hopes dashed by the Court of Appeal.
Elizabeth Robinson, 81, had just dismounted from a bus and was minding her own business when a detective cannoned into her while chasing a suspected drug dealer along the pavement in Huddersfield. She was bundled over and both the officer and the fugitive fell on top of her. She suffered serious orthopaedic injuries as well as scarring in the July 2008 incident.
Mrs Robinson's legal team has since fought for compensation from the West Yorkshire Police Authority. However, whilst expressing sympathy for her, the Court found that victory for the pensioner could encourage 'defensive policing' and that her private rights had to come second to the public interest in fighting crime.
In upholding an earlier ruling to like affect, the Court ruled, "Arresting criminals very commonly carries some form of risk. Yet, there is an obvious public interest in not imposing a duty which might deter the police from removing a drug dealer from the streets. Provided that the police act within reason, the public would prefer to see them doing their job and taking drug dealers off the street. It will be of little comfort to Mrs Robinson, but the risk to passers-by like her is trumped by the risk to society as a whole."
Although the immunity from suit enjoyed by the police was not absolute, the Court observed, "The basic principle is that where there is a wrong there should be a remedy. However, there are cases where it will not be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty and the interests of the public at large may outweigh the interests of the individual allegedly wronged."
The police officer had taken careful account of any risk to the public in carrying out the arrest, and the Court ruled that, in the circumstances, his conduct in the course of his duty could not in any event be viewed as negligent. The Police Authority’s lawyers had argued that the officer had been faced with a classic policing challenge but had ‘done all the right things’.