NEGLIGENCE/LOCAL AUTHORITY: X v Hounslow London Borough Council [2009] EWCA Civ 286

07 MAY 2009

(Court of Appeal; Sir Anthony Clarke MR, Tuckey, Goldring LJJ; 2 April 2009)

The two vulnerable adults were council tenants, living in a council property with their two children, aged 11 and 8. The vulnerable adults befriended some of the young people on the local estate, who proceeded to use their flat for a variety of criminal activities. A social worker regularly visited the vulnerable adults, giving them advice and assistance, and the children were seen by the social services' children and family section. The social worker became aware that local youths were exploiting the vulnerable adults, and after one of the vulnerable adults had been assaulted by one of the youths reported her concerns to the police; the police refused to act without a complaint from the vulnerable adults themselves. The social worker also contacted social services in respect of child protection concerns, and wrote a letter asking for the vulnerable adults long-term application for rehousing to be considered urgently. The social worker accompanied the vulnerable adults to a meeting with the housing department's harassment officer. However, she did not ask the housing department to place the family in emergency temporary accommodation. Before the next meeting, the family was effectively imprisoned in the flat by the youths: both adults were repeatedly assaulted and abused in the presence of the two children, who were also assaulted and abused. Subsequently the vulnerable adults sought damages, claiming that, although the social worker had not been negligent, the authority's failure to rehouse the family urgently was a breach of the authority's duty of care towards them. The judge held that the local authority had been under a duty of care to protect the vulnerable adults from abuse by third parties, in that the authority had had a duty to move the vulnerable adults and their children out of the council property, in response to the foreseeable risk that the family would be attacked there. The authority had failed to consider, or to implement, its own emergency transfer procedure.

The court allowed the appeal. There was no common law duty of care to protect vulnerable adults who needed support, from criminal acts by third parties, unless there had been an assumption of responsibility towards the vulnerable adults, for example a specific assumption of responsibility for the vulnerable adults safety. The facts did not show an assumption of responsibility by the authority, or some other special factor that might give rise to the imposition of a duty of care to the vulnerable adults: both the housing and the social services departments had simply been trying to exercise their statutory functions, no more and no less.

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