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Reese v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2000] 1 AC 360

The availability of a claim in negligence against the police in respect of a prisoner who commits suicide whilst in police custody

Facts

The executrix of a deceased estate brought an action against the police following the death of a prisoner in custody. The prisoner was a known suicide risk and it was held at first instance, because the police were aware of the risk that they owed a duty of care to the prisoner in this respect. It was also accepted that the duty had been breached by the police when they left the hatch open in the cell door on the basis that they ought to have been aware that the prisoner may tie his shirt to it and hang himself. Despite this, the trial judge found that a claim in negligence could not succeed because the defences of non fit injuria and novus actus interveniens applied. The judgment was overturned on appeal on the basis that the defences could not apply where the act complained of itself gave rise to the defence. The Commissioner appealed.

Issue

Whether a concerted act of suicide could break the chain of causation between a negligent act and death.

Held

It was held that suicide in the circumstances of this case would not break the chain of causation. In circumstances where a person was of sound mind, they could be expected to be responsible for their own actions. However, where the police were aware of a particular risk, it would create an absurd result if a failure to protect against the risk created a defence to the claim where the death was caused by the known risk. It was held however, that both the police and the prisoner were negligent and therefore damages reflected the prisoner’s contributory negligence.


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