The Crown Prosecution Service has recently released new guidelines stating that the statutory liability of police officers and firefighters for potentially negligent acts committed in the course of duty will be extremely limited in the future.
Under the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 employees are subject to a duty under s.7 to “take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work”. Police officers and firefighters are employees for the purposes of the Act (and are generally also defined as employees). They are likely to be presented in the course of their employment with situations that require both fast action and the imposition of risk, both for themselves and others. The Coalition Government had announced that they were intending to cut the red tape that binds police officers and firefighters in situations like this as they are concerned that it produces a risk-averse culture that would impede the operations of the emergency services.
This has resulted in the CPS stating that in situations where firefighters and policemen have been obliged to act in fast-moving, risky situations, it is unlikely that a jury would find that such actions were ‘unreasonable’. This therefore indicates that a lower threshold of duty of care has been implemented for emergency services personnel. However, this does not suggest immunity for such employees if they should commit an act that was grossly negligent. A jury in these circumstances may find that the actions of the officer concerned was unreasonable and impose statutory liability. Further, emergency personnel are also subject to a common law duty to not cause harm to their reasonably proximate neighbour through negligence on their part. However, both firefighters and policemen only have restricted liability for public policy reasons. These reasons include both ‘defensiveness’ (possible encouragement of a risk-averse culture for the emergency services if liability is imposed) and ‘floodgates’ (the encouraging of litigating against the emergency services). Generally, though, firefighters are not held liable for negligent acts caused by omission to act (such as failure to attend a fire that they have been alerted to (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints v West Yorkshire and Civil Defence Authority) but may be held liable if they act and make things worse (John Monroe v London Fire Authority). The same kind of restrictions apply to police officers. If there is harm caused by the negligent act of a police officer in the course of day-to-day duties (such as on the beat, for example) then police officers can be held liable. However, if the negligent act is committed in the course of an investigation then there is no duty of care and therefore no liability. Again, police officers are not liable if they fail to attend the scene of a crime as they are held to have no duty of care for an omission.