Welsh Women’s Aid Welcome Supreme Court Judgment Police May Have Violated Joanna Michael’s Human Rights – Disappointed by Negligence Decision

Today [Wednesday 28.01.15] the Supreme Court has given judgment in the case of Michael and others v. Chief Constable of South Wales Police and Chief Constable of Gwent Police. This is a landmark case dealing with fatal domestic violence against women and police accountability. Welsh Women’s Aid intervened in the Supreme Court in support of the family of Joanna Michael, along with Refuge and Liberty. We continue to strongly support the family’s quest for justice for Joanna Michael.

In August 2009 Joanna Michael was stabbed to death in Cardiff by her ex-partner when waiting for a police response to two 999 calls. In her first call Joanna had made clear that her life had been threatened by her former partner. She said she had been assaulted by her ex-partner and he had left in a car, saying he would return to kill her. However, the threat to her life was not passed on by the call handler. When the information was received by a police patrol the response was downgraded in priority.  She made a further call which ended in her screaming. Tragically, when the police arrived she had died. Her ex-partner is now serving a life sentence for her murder.

The police have accepted that the handling of Joanna’s calls was seriously defective. In 2010 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that she was failed by Gwent Police, South Wales Police and the 999 system itself. The IPCC’s independent report was highly critical of both systemic and individual failings in the case.

Since Joanna’s killing her family have sought to obtain justice for her.  Her family have brought civil claims against South Wales Police and Gwent Police under the Human Rights Act 1998, for breach of the right to life protected by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and for negligence. The Court of Appeal’s judgment in this case had allowed consideration of whether the police could be held liable under the Human Rights Act 1998 for a failure to take reasonable steps to protect Joanna’s right to life and prevent her murder.  The police appealed against this finding to the Supreme Court. At the same time Joanna’s family’s appealed to the Supreme Court against the Court of Appeal’s finding  that it is not possible under English Law for a police force to be liable in the law of negligence for its handling of emergency calls.

In its judgment the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the appeal by Gwent and South Wales police, finding that the issue of whether the police response violated Joanna’s right to life should go to trial. However, the Court (by a 5 to 2 majority) also rejected the family’s appeal, finding that under the  law of England and Wales, at present, the police cannot be held liable in negligence in relation to the handling of emergency calls.

Welsh Women’s Aid strongly welcomes the Supreme Court’s unanimous finding that the conduct of the police may have violated Joanna’s right to life, protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, and that both police forces must face trial in relation to this.  Welsh Women’s Aid believes that ensuring respect for human rights standards is crucial in protecting women who may be at risk of domestic violence.  It is however disappointing that a majority of the Supreme Court did not go further and take this opportunity to develop English common law to keep pace with international standards concerning gender-based violence.

Commenting on the judgment, Eleri Butler, CEO of Welsh Women’s Aid said:

“Where there are failings in protecting victims of domestic violence, accountability is crucial. Violence against women is a fundamental violation of women’s human rights and the Supreme Court’s judgment provides timely reaffirmation of the importance of human rights protections for victims of domestic violence. The Human Rights Act has a vital role to play in this.  If it was not for the Human Rights Act, the family of Joanna Michael would have no prospect of obtaining accountability for Joanna’s death. Two women a week are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales and it is vital that the state agencies are held to account when they fail to take action to prevent violence and protect victims.”


Notes for Editors:

  1. 1.A copy of the judgment can be found here https://www.supremecourt.uk/news/latest-judgments.html
  2. 2.For further information, or to arrange interviews, please contact Tina Reece (Public Affairs Manager) at Welsh Women’s Aid on 02920 541 551, 0755 3374402 or [email protected]
  3. 3.Welsh Women’s Aid made written submissions in the SupremeA copy of these submissions is available upon request.
  4. 4.In the Supreme Court Welsh Women’s Aid’s legal representation was provided, pro bono, by solicitor Rebekah Carrier, Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors, and barristers Caoilfhionn Gallagher, Doughty Street Chambers, and Conor McCarthy, MoncktonJane Elliott-Kelly, Doughty Street Chambers, also provided further pro bono support.
  5. 5.Welsh Women’s Aid is the lead, national membership organisation in Wales which represents the views and experiences of Welsh domestic abuse and sexual violence services. Our membership comprises 27 independent specialist domestic abuse/violence against women services across Wales which provide a range of front-line services: refuges, community-based outreach, support and advocacy through one stop shops, drop-ins, group-work, independent advocates (IDVAs and ISVAs), and support for children and young people. More information is available at http://www.welshwomensaid.org.uk/
  6. 6.On average in the UK two women a week are killed by a male partner or formerThis constitutes approximately one third of all female homicide victims in the UK.
  7. 7.To donate £3 to Welsh Women’s Aid to help us continue our work to end violence against women and children in Wales please text ‘BLHI37 £3’ to 70070.
  8. 8.Anyone affected by domestic abuse or sexual violence in Wales can contact the All Wales Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence Helpline on 0808 80 10 800 for 24/7, confidential information and support.