The Met Police has lost a Supreme Court appeal against a decision that held officers breached the victims’ human rights by failing to conduct effective investigations into a prolific sex offender’s crimes.
Yesterday, in a landmark Supreme Court judgment, the Metropolitan Police were found to have failed to adequately investigate John Worboys’ attacks on women and their appeal was unanimously rejected. The Supreme Court also held by a majority judgment that actions against the police for breaches of human rights can be pursued where there have been failings in individual investigations.
John Worboys, a London black-cab driver, committed serious sexual assaults against women between 2003 and 2008. His offences were brought back to light in the media recently as a result of a raft of complaints from victims that they had not been told he was due to be released from prison, a decision which is set to be challenged in the High Court on 13 March.
Two of Worboys’ victims, known as DSD and NBV to protect their identities, brought proceedings against the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police for the failure of the police to conduct effective investigations into Worboys’ crimes. DSD and NBW were attacked by Worboys in 2003 and 2007 respectively.
The claims were brought under sections 7 and 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The combined effect of these provisions allows people to bring proceedings against a public authority and to be awarded damages, where it has acted in a way that is incompatible with their rights under the ECHR. In this case, Worboys’ victims claimed their Article 3 rights (the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment) were breached as a result of the Police’s failure to investigate.
However, while these claims were brought under the HRA, today’s decision may have far reaching ramifications for other actions against the police brought in relation to alleged failures to adequately investigate the commission of crime. The decision also comes in the same month as another landmark ruling, which held that police forces can and should be held liable for negligent acts committed against members of the public during the course of investigating or supressing crime.
Supreme Court Appeal
Worboys’ victims succeeded in their claim before Justice Green in 2014 and were awarded compensation. An appeal by the Metropolitan Police was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 2015 and the force’s latest appeal to the Supreme Court was also dismissed unanimously.
The Metropolitan Police argued that the positive obligation to respond to ill-treatment by a member of the public is to put in place the legal structures required to ensure that a proper inquiry can be conducted. They argued it does NOT extend to the operational content of an individual inquiry. The investigative obligation, it argued, only arises where a state agent (i.e. police officer) is complicit in the alleged ill-treatment.
Conversely, the victims’ lawyers argued that the state has a duty under Article 3 to conduct an effective investigation into crimes which involve serious violence to an individual.
Lord Kerr stated: “I cannot accept a suggestion that, to give rise to a breach of Article 3, deficiencies in investigation had to be part and parcel of a flawed approach of the system generally. I accept, however, that simple errors or isolated omissions will not give rise to a violation of Article 3 at the supra-national and the national levels. That is why… only conspicuous or substantial errors in investigation would qualify.”
Met Police failures
The failings of the Metropolitan Police, which were first highlighted in an IPCC report in 2009, included but were not limited to:-
- Reception staff failing to record relevant names, addresses and vehicle registration details. The judge in the initial proceedings found that if these had been recorded it was “perfectly feasible to believe” that Worboys might have been apprehended earlier or from further offending;
- Failure to interview promptly a witness known as Kevin. He could have identified Worboys and could have given evidence that might have led to his arrest;
- Failure to collect CCTV evidence. Worboys had driven his taxi to a police station. The timing of his arrival at and departure from the police station was known. If police officers had checked the CCTV footage, they could have identified the registration number and this would have led them to Worboys;
- Failure to link complaints made between 2003 and 2008. Between 2003 and 2008 many complaints were made to police which should have been sufficient to trigger the arrest of Worboys. As Lord Kerr summarised, “the failure to make the link between these complaints was due not only to a lack of training but also to a failure to adhere to procedures”
Lord Hughes favoured a narrower approach to the duty Article 3 imposed on police officers. He stated that a claimant has to establish serious failings of a systematic nature and that purely operational failings will not suffice.
Lord Neurburger was in agreement with Lord Kerr and stated that serious failures that are purely operational will suffice to establish a claim that an investigation carried out infringed the duty imposed by Article 3. Lady Hale agreed with the judgments of Lords Kerr and Nurburger and Lord Mance considered that the distinction between operational and systemic failures has been replaced by a distinction between simple or isolated mistakes and more serious failings.
In the Met Police’s Worboys investigation there were plain structural and systematic errors. As such, the argument surrounding whether operational failures could also give rise to claims under Article 3 did not need to be resolved for the purposes of deciding whether to dismiss the appeal. However, the majority finding that serious failures in individual investigations can also give rise to actions against the police may have significant ramifications for future claimants.
While, as Lord Kerr states “the recognition that really serious operational failures by police in the investigation of offences can give rise to a breach of article 3 cannot realistically be said to herald an avalanche of claims for every retrospectively detected error in police investigations of minor crime”, the significance of yesterday’s judgment when considered alongside the landmark ruling in Robinson cannot be denied.
As was pointed out in yesterday’s judgment, convention claims should and do differ from civil claims. However, it cannot be ignored that, in the space of the same month, the Supreme Court has helped clear a path for claimants wishing for recourse via either avenue.