The Supreme Court gives hope to hundreds of bereaved families of domestic homicide victims

The Supreme Court’s judgment, today, states that ‘the tragic murder of Joanna Michael might have been prevented if the police had responded promptly to a 999 call made by Ms Michael. Two police forces were involved, Gwent Police and South Wales police, and there was a lack of effective liaison between them’.

The police had argued that no duty of care to Joanna (under Article 2 of the European Convention for Human Rights regarding the right to life) arose from this case. However, all of the Supreme Court judges disagreed with them and ruled that Joanna’s human rights were, arguably, breached by the police and that the family were, therefore, entitled to pursue a claim against the police for failing to protect Joanna.

However, Refuge is deeply disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled against the family’s claim that the police may be held liable for negligence. Refuge intervened in this case because we strongly believe that the police’s current immunity from negligence claims is preventing improvements in police practice and enabling dangerous, lax and ineffective policing of such crimes to prevail. As Lord Kerr (one of the two Supreme Court judges who disagreed with the final ruling) observed (see paragraph 181 of ruling): ‘to find that no duty arises on the facts of the present case requires us to squarely confront the consequence of such a finding. If the police force had not negligently downgraded the urgency of Ms Michael’s call, on the facts as they are known at present, it is probable that she would still be alive.’ It is vital that the police are held to account when they fail to protect women and children.

Refuge is calling for a public inquiry into the way in which the police and other statutory agencies in the UK respond to victims of domestic violence. We need 50,000 more signatures to provoke an urgent and vital debate in the House of Commons.

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Family Photos Montage

Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, says:

“Refuge is deeply disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled against Joanna Michael’s family’s claim that the police may be held liable for negligence. However, Refuge is encouraged by the Court’s ruling on Article 2 which should give hope to hundreds of recently bereaved families of domestic homicide victims.

Joanna Michael, the mother of two young children, died a needless death. No court ruling will change that. Two women are killed by a current or former partner every week in this country. And just like hundreds of other victims of domestic violence Joanna was failed by the police when she reached out for help. We are delighted that Joanna’s family may now, at least, progress one step further down the long path to justice and that their Article 2 claim, seeking a declaration and compensation from the State, may now proceed. This judgment has wider, positive, implications for abused women and children. It secures a small increase in police accountability and widens a previously very narrow doorway to justice for hundreds of recently bereaved families of domestic homicide victims. Refuge is currently supporting many of these families to explore their legal options to obtain justice for their mothers, daughters and sisters.

‘‘The scale of police failure on domestic violence in this country is breath-taking. Last year Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary issued a stark warning after conducting a national inspection of all police forces, finding that serious failings in core policing duties were putting abused women and children at unnecessary risk. Mounting evidence of police failure has also been unearthed by an endless stream of Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations, Domestic Homicide Reviews, Serious Case Reviews and coroners’ inquests. Each finding repeats the same unacceptable refrain of mistakes, missed opportunities and oversights. This cannot go on.

“Refuge is calling for a public inquiry into the State’s failure to protect abused women and children. A public inquiry would take a holistic view of the systemic inadequacies in our current national response to the issue. It would join up the dots between individual cases in which the State has, arguably, failed to protect life including: Joanna Michael, Maria Stubbings, Katie Boardman, Cassie Hasanovic, Sabina Akhtar, Bahnaz Mahmood, Arsema Dawit, Colette Lynch, Linah Keza, Natasha Trevis, Christine Lee, Lucy Lee, Rachael Slack and her two-year old son, Auden, and hundreds and hundreds of others. And it would ensure that the lives of the hundreds of women and children, failed, year on year in this country by the agencies designed to protect them, would not have been lost in vain.”

Liberty’s lawyer Rosie Brighouse said: “Time and time again, police are failing victims of domestic violence – but, thanks to these archaic rules, even the most breath-taking police negligence goes unchallenged.

When a known victim of domestic violence calls 999 to ask for help, it must be right that police are under a positive obligation to respond – and to do so competently. The family of Joanna Michael have learned today that the Human Rights Act will allow them to make that case at trial – showing once again how indispensable the act is to victims of serious crime.”

Sarah Ricca, solicitor for Refuge and Liberty, says: “The fight to achieve equal protection from the law for women facing domestic violence will continue, inside and outside the courts. This case was an important step in that fight. The highest court in the land has had to address and acknowledge the stark reality of police failings in relation to domestic violence. Though part of the battle in this case was lost, the rest of the case proceeds. That is an important victory in itself.”

Families supported by Refuge

Background notes for case

1. Summary of Supreme Court case

Judgment in the Supreme Court case on Michael and others (Appellants) v The Chief Constable of South Wales Police and another (Respondents) UKSC 2013/0043 will be handed down on Wednesday 28 January 2015 at 09:45am in Courtroom 1. This case relates to whether the police were liable in negligence and/or in relation to Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of the death of a woman, Miss Joanna Michael, the mother (at the time of her murder) of a seven year old child and a ten-month old baby, following the mishandling of 999 calls she made on the night she was killed. The police accept that the handling of the calls was seriously defective. Miss Michael’s estate and family raised claims in negligence and in terms of article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights against the two police forces involved. At first instance, the claims were allowed to proceed but the Court of Appeal awarded summary judgment in favour of the police on the negligence claim and ruled that the Article 2 ECHR claim should proceed to trial. The appellants appealed to the Supreme Court on the negligence claim and the respondents appealed against the Court of Appeal decision on the Article 2 ECHR claim.

2. Summary of circumstances surrounding Joanna Michael’s murder
• Joanna Michael lived in Cardiff. At the time of her death (5 Aug 2009) she had two young children – one aged 7 years and a ten-month-old baby. During Joanna’s relationship with Cyron Williams there had been several reports of domestic violence involving South Wales police.
• Joanna ended the relationship in late June 2009.
• On 5th August 2009 at 2.29am, Joanna dialled 999 from her mobile telephone. She lived in the area of South Wales police but her call was picked up by a telephone mast in Gwent. Her call was, thus, misrouted from the South Wales Police area to neighbouring Gwent.
• Joanna told the 999 call handler that her ex-boyfriend had turned up in the middle of the night, found her with a new partner and attacked her. Cyron had taken the new boyfriend away in his car and had told Joanna that, on his return, he was going to kill her’.
• Joanna relayed this information to the call handler.
• The call handler graded the call as requiring an immediate response and passed the case over to South Wales Police – however, the call handler neglected to pass on key information, such as the fact that Cyron had threatened to kill Joanna and that there were young children including a baby in the house.
• South Wales Police downgraded the call which allowed them up to an hour to respond. Joanna’s home was only a few minutes from the nearest police station.
• At 2.43am Gwent Police received a further call from Joanna. She was heard screaming before the line went dead.
• Officers then attended and found her stabbed to death.
• The case was subsequently investigated by IPCC who criticised both forces for individual and organisational failures.