30 April, 2009
The Court of Appeal's decision in the case of X & Y (Protected Parties Represented by their Litigation Friend The Official Solicitor) v Hounslow London Borough Council (2009) EWCA Civ 286 reversed the previous decision which had originally substantially altered the liabilities of housing authorities and landlords, in that they were considered to be under a duty of care to their tenants.
The local authority was appealing against the High Court's decision to find that they owed the tenants a duty of care to protect them from criminal acts and that they had negligently failed to do so.
X and Y were a married couple and both had learning difficulties. In the course of the summer of 2000, the pair were befriended by a group of youths and it appeared that X and Y's flat was being used by the youths as a place to take drugs, store stolen goods and generally misbehave. On one weekend in November however, the instances of behaviour became significantly worse. Effectively, X and Y were both (along with Y's children) imprisoned in their own homes by the group of youths and were assaulted, abused and made to perform degrading acts. Their possessions were thrown over the property's balcony and they were forced to eat and drink harmful substances and liquids.
In the previous month a social worker, who had been assigned to work with X and Y, became aware of the fact that X had been assaulted by one of the youths in a local fast food restaurant and that this individual regularly stayed at the property overnight in order to prevent X from complaining to the Police. These issues were reported by the social worker to the Police, who declined to take any action unless X and Y complained personally.
The social worker had also contacted the relevant department at the local authority, who in turn had made arrangements for a child protection meeting to take place. Contact was also made with the Council's housing department and the social worker informed them that X and Y were vulnerable individuals and that their long-standing application for re-housing should be considered immediately. A meeting was therefore arranged with the Council's housing officers, which had been scheduled for three days after the events in question took place. It was also noted in the case that the social worker had not requested emergency interim housing for X and Y before the meeting, as she had not foreseen them being assaulted in their own home.
At the initial hearing, X and Y argued that the local authority should have foreseen that they were in imminent physical danger and should have re-housed them. It was held by the High Court that the Council did indeed owe such a duty of care to the pair and that this duty had been breached by the Council in not moving X and Y before the incident occurred.
The appeal brought by the Council was on the grounds that they in fact owed no duty of care in the circumstances. X and Y contended that the local authority had recognised that they were in immediate danger, that they needed to be re-housed and that the pair were both relying on such a move. They also submitted that these factors gave rise to a duty based primarily upon an assumption of responsibility to take reasonable steps to move them into new accommodation.
The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Council and consequently reversed the decision to award a substantial level of damages awarded to X and Y. It was held that it was clear from the evidence presented that the local authority, the housing department and the social worker, in carrying out their duties as they did, were merely seeking to carry out their statutory duties under the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Housing Act 1996. It had not been contended by X and Y that the Council was in breach of any statutory duty actionable by a private law claim for damages and accordingly, the Council's exercise of its duties did not give rise to a duty of care. It was the court's view that there was no one individual or organisation who assumed the same kind of responsibility as that which arises from a relationship between doctor and patient.
As an alternative position, the court ruled that if there was indeed a duty of care owed to X and Y, then it could only have been assumed by the social worker, given that she had not specifically requested emergency housing accommodation for the pair. On this point the court stated that there had been absolutely no suggestion that the social worker had breached this duty (if it had been in existence) and had behaved impeccably throughout her dealings with the case. It had also never been alleged by X and Y that she had behaved in a negligent manner towards them. Therefore, in light of the fact that the Council did not have the closest connection to the problems facing the couple, they could not have been considered as having assumed this duty.
The case is significant for landlords not just because of the potential levels of damages involved in instances with such severe and troubling circumstances, but also because guidance has been provided for determining whether such organisations would owe a duty of care to their tenants.
The decision of the Court of Appeal indicates that, provided a local authority carries out its statutory duties in a satisfactory manner, there should be no actionable breach of a duty of care.