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no duty on social landlords to protect tenants against the actions of others

23 February 2009
On 18 February 2009, the House of Lords handed down their judgment in the case of Mitchell and another v Glasgow City Council [2009] UKHL 11.

The claim

The case was brought by Anne Mitchell, the widow of James Mitchell, who was killed by a violent neighbour. Mrs Mitchell sued Glasgow City Council for failing in its duty of care towards Mr Mitchell. Mr Mitchell moved into a property on the Moss Park estate of Glasgow in March 1986. His neighbour was Mr Drummond. Both properties were owned by Glasgow City Council.

Trouble began in December 1994 when Mr Mitchell complained to Mr Drummond for playing loud music; Drummond retaliated, bashing the Mitchells door with a tyre lever and smashing his windows. The police were called and Drummond arrested. Between 1994 and 2001 there were countless incidences of verbal and physical abuse directed at Mr Mitchell and his family by Mr Drummond, including frequent threats to kill.

Subsequently, Mr Drummond was warned by Glasgow City Council that they were considering possession proceedings. In January 2001, the Council served on Mr Drummond, a Notice of Proceedings for Recovery of Possession of the property. On 31 July 2001, the Council arranged a meeting with Mr Drummond to discuss his behaviour and the Notice of Proceedings. At the meeting the Council explained that they would be issuing a fresh Notice of Proceedings and would continue to monitor his anti-social behaviour, which could result in his eviction. Mr Drummond lost his temper and became abusive, but then appeared to calm down and apologised to the Councils staff. He then left the meeting and violently assaulted Mr Mitchell, leaving him with injuries from which he subsequently died.

Mrs Mitchell sought to claim damages from the Council on the basis that they should have kept Mr Mitchell and the police informed of the steps they were taking against Mr Drummond, and in particular should have notified them of the meeting on 31 July 2001.

The judgment

Judgment was given in favour of the Council. Lord Hope said that if such a duty to warn was imposed, the Council would have to determine, step by step at each stage, whether the actions they proposed to take in fulfilment of their responsibilities as landlords, required a warning to be given, and to whom. They would have had to defer taking that step until the warning had been received by everyone, and an opportunity given for it to be acted upon. The more attentive the Council was to their ordinary duties as landlords, the more onerous the duty to warn would become.

Lord Hope went on to state that these problems suggest that to impose a duty to warn - together with the risk that action could be taken against them by anybody who suffered loss, injury or damage if they had received no warning - would deter social landlords from intervening to reduce incidences of anti-social behaviour.

Lord Hopes judgment confirmed an earlier House of Lords decision in Maloco v Littlewoods Organisation 1987 SC (HL) 37. It was held that, as a general rule, a duty to warn another person that he is at risk of loss, injury or damage as a result of the criminal act of a third party, will arise only where the person who is said to be under that duty, has, by his words or conduct, assumed responsibility for the safety of the person who is at risk.

While it was accepted that the Council was the landlord of both Mr Mitchell and Mr Drummond, and as such, there was a relationship of proximity, the crucial question was whether it was fair, just and reasonable that it should be held liable in damages for failing to warn. Applying the tests of fairness and public policy, the Lordships held that the answer was no.

The Council had not assumed responsibility to advise Mr Mitchell of the steps they were taking or induced him to rely on them. Accordingly, it was held that it would not be fair, just or reasonable to hold that the Council was under a duty to warn Mr Mitchell of the steps they were taking.

Conclusion

This case reinforces the point that social landlords do not ordinarily owe a duty to tenants to protect them from the actions of others, including other tenants. Had a duty been established, the decision would have had far reaching implications, not only for social landlords, but would have imposed a duty to warn in every case where an individual or organisation has reason to suspect that harm may come to another, opening the floodgates to claims.

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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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