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Bluett v Suffolk County Council & 8 Others, Court of Appeal, 20 December 2004

6 January 2005
The issues

Striking Out – Whether Claim Lay Against Local Authority For Negligence At Common Law On The Basis Of Assumed Responsibility Towards The Claimant

The facts

The Claimant was born in May 1981. Problems arose between her and her parents. A voluntary accommodation agreement was made in July 1994 allowing Suffolk to provide the Claimant with accommodation while her parents retained parental responsibility. There followed periods of short term fostering and a number of attempts to return the Claimant to her family. A long term fostering arrangement was made in 1995 which broke down and came to an end by September 1997. Arrangements were made for the Claimant to be housed temporarily with the mother of a school friend. The Social Worker who was particularly concerned with the Claimant was a Mr Lorford-Page.

Suffolk’s financial support and responsibility for the Claimant’s foster care had ceased. In October 1997 the Council’s Leaving Care Service got in touch with her and in November it was recorded at a meeting that Mr Page’s role as her Social Worker would be reduced. In December 1997 she moved to the Foyer in Ipswich.

The Foyer was a hostel for young people. There appeared to be evidence that it had problems relating to drink and drugs and vandalism. It engaged the Fifth and Sixth defendants to provide security services. On 3rd January 1998 problems arose at the hostel. One of the residents at the hostel, Paul Doe, had a girlfriend, Joanna Blowers, the ninth defendant. S he thought the Claimant had had sex with Paul Doe. She and others, amongst whom were the seventh and eight defendants, invaded the hostel. The Claimant, in fear of her life from the seventh, eighth and ninth defendants leaped from her window suffering dreadful injuries and falling 40 feet to the ground. She was gravely injured and permanently incapacitated. In particular, she claimed against Suffolk County Council. Suffolk applied to strike out under Part 3.4 (no reasonable grounds for bringing or defending the claim) and fur summary judgment under Part 24. They succeeded before the Master and on appeal before the High Court Judge.

The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal. During the appeal it was clear that the pleaded case was insufficient to set up a claim for breach of common law duty of care against the County Council. The Court invited Claimant’s Counsel to formulate a proposed amendment during a short adjournment. The essence of the claim was that the Claimant relied on the County Council and the person of Mr Page for help and advice in obtaining suitable accommodation and that Mr Page was to be taken to have assumed responsibility to her in helping and advising her to guard against the loss for which damages were claimed.

The claim for breach of statutory duty under the Children Act 1989 was not pursued on the basis that it was clear that the Act provided no relevant private law right of action.

The decision

1. There was little difficulty in seeing that the Claimant had relied on Mr Page in the matter of accommodation. He had been instrumental in removing her in 1997 from a hostel which he thought unsuitable and had been centrally involved in the choice of the Foyer for her accommodation.

2. On the facts, it also appeared that Mr Page assumed a responsibility to the Claimant in the matter of her accommodation at the Foyer. The issue was whether the responsibility which Mr Page was to be taken to have assumed was to guard against the loss for which damages are claimed i.e. to guard against the consequences of the Claimant jumping out of her third floor window to escape her attackers.

3. The High Court Judge in dismissing the claim had discussed this matter in the language of causation and breach. Noting that no Court would conclude that any such breach caused the consequences of the Claimant jumping out of a third floor window. This was not sufficient however to justify striking out. If Mr Page knew or ought to have known that the Foyer was an establishment which a young woman was at significant risk of serious physical attack then it would be a curious consequence if the law was such that the County Council would be liable if she was stabbed but not if she jumped out of a window to avoid being stabbed.

The first important issue was therefore whether the Claimant had any real prospect of establishing at Trial that Mr Page knew or ought to have known that the Foyer was an establishment in which a young woman was at significant risk of serious physical injury. S v Gloucestershire County Council was authority for the proposition that for a summary judgment application to succeed in a case where a strike out application would not succeed the Court would first need to be satisfied that all substantial facts relevant to the allegations of negligence which were reasonably capable of being before the Court were before the Court and that these facts were undisputed or there was no real prospect of successfully disputing them and that there was no real prospect of oral evidence affecting the Court’s assessment of the facts.

Here it was not the case that all substantial facts relevant to the allegations of negligence were before the Court. There had been no formal disclosure in particular by the Second, Third and Fourth Defendants, the owners or managers of the Foyer, nor by the Fifth and Sixth Defendants engaged in relation to its security. There were suggestions that there were problems with drink and drugs and there were “the bones of a possible case” that the Foyer was insecure and at risk of dangerously violent incursion by intruders. In S v Gloucestershire the Court of Appeal stated that Social Workers were capable of being held to have been negligent by analogy with decisions of other professional people subject to a detailed factual enquiry. This was such a case and it could not be stated that the Claimant had a claim which was bound to fail.

Appeal allowed.

Although the application for permission to amend was very late, permission would be granted in principal. The Council would not be tied to the terms of the hurried draft presented to the Court but that permission did not extend beyond the framework indicated in the Judgment. The amendment would be made outside the limitation period but a cause of action in negligence was already pleaded.

Although the amendment was made very late there were extenuating circumstances relating to funding not least the fact that the Claimant’s solicitor had died.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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