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Home Office v Butchart, Court of Appeal, 15 March 2006

23 March 2006
The issues

Psychiatric Injury – Extent Of Whether Duty To Take Reasonable Care To Ensure Health And Safety Extends To Prevention Of Psychiatric Harm To Prisoner

The facts

The Claimant was on remand in Winchester Prison. It was his case that he was psychiatrically vulnerable and that the prison authorities knew that he was. In particular his condition was depressed and unstable threatening self harm and he was at one stage suicidal. Despite this he alleged that he was placed in a cell with another remand prisoner known to be a suicide risk who in fact committed suicide. Because of the stress created by being placed in the same cell as that prisoner, the prisoner’s suicide, the fact that he said he was blamed for the suicide by a prison officer, and was subsequently placed in a cell with another suicidal prisoner, he claimed that he had suffered psychiatric harm. The Defendant applied to strike out the claim on the grounds that it did not owe any duty to the Claimant to prevent psychiatric damage to him as a consequence of the suicide of his fellow prisoner. The Defendant also applied for summary judgment. Both applications were dismissed by the Judge.

The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The decision

1. The Defendant argued that the control mechanisms in Frost were applicable in every case where the causative event in a claim for psychiatric damage was trauma consequent on witnessing the death or suicide or another. The Defendant argued that the Claimant could not succeed because he could not show the necessary element of close tie of love and affection with the victim.

2. However, it was unnecessary to analyse this argument in any detail. The Claimant’s case was not one based upon the effects of the suicide and was not therefore a nervous shock case. The psychiatric injury that the Claimant suffered was the result of a breach of a primary duty of care owed to him and was the result of the cumulative effect of being incarcerated with an increasingly disturbed prisoner. The claim as pleaded did not require the Claimant to surmount the hurdle of the control mechanism in Frost.

3. There was no doubt that the Claimant was owed a duty of care by the Defendant following the decision of the House of Lords in Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis which held that the police owed a duty of care to those in its custody.

4. The question then was whether or not the scope of that duty encompassed taking reasonable steps to prevent a prisoner from psychiatric injury. From the decisions in Hatton v Sutherland, Barber v Somerset County Council, and Hartman v South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust, it was clear that the control mechanisms applicable to claims for psychiatric injury in cases such as those considered in Frost were not relevant to claims where a Claimant could clearly establish a duty of care to prevent or minimise psychiatric harm. That duty formed part of the ordinary obligation of the employer’s duty of care. In this case some of these authorities were directly on the point but they made it clear that the question in cases such as the Claimant’s case was not the same as the question raised in cases such as Frost. Here, the pleaded facts were sufficient to establish if proved that the Defendant knew or ought to have known that the prisoner vulnerable to psychiatric harm and in those circumstances it was inevitable that the duty of care which the Defendant owed to the Claimant included a duty to take reasonable steps to minimise the risk of psychiatric harm.

Appeal dismissed.

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