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Do public authorities owe a duty of care? – assumed responsibility


The Court of Appeal in Tindall v Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police & Buckinghamshire County Council [2022] EWCA Civ 25 clarifies when public authorities may owe a duty of care. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith stated that “the law is not in a state of flux. On the contrary, the law is settled by successive decisions that are binding upon this court”.

The judgment in Tindall is useful to practitioners in that it collates authorities relied upon by the Court in reaching its decision and the principles that arise out of those cases.

Background and facts

Tindall is a case concerning a road traffic collision that occurred at around 05:45 on 04/03/2014. It was a fatal collision on the A413 when two drivers -Mr Tindall and Mr Bird – were killed in a head-on collision. The collision was caused by Mr Bird’s vehicle losing control on black ice.

At or around 04:45 on the same morning, another accident had occurred on the same stretch of road, caused by black ice. The driver in that collision, Mr Kendall, had ended up in a ditch having lost control. Mr Kendall was concerned that the black ice would cause another accident and stood signalling for other vehicles to slow down.

When the police attended to Mr Kendall’s accident, he informed them of the black ice and that he felt it was dangerous. The police put up a “police slow” sign and cleared the debris from the road. The police then left the scene, taking their sign with them, at or around 05:30.

The Claimants in Tindall sought to bring a claim against the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police on the basis that the Chief Constable was vicariously liable for the police officers’ conduct at the scene and upon their departure, such behaviour, it was pleaded, was negligence.

First instance

The Chief Constable applied to strike out the claim as disclosing no reasonable cause of action or seeking summary judgment.

The master that heard the application considered that the case law showed that what amounts to “an intervention which makes things worse” is a fact-dependent exercise, requiring a trial for determination of the facts. Therefore, the Master dismissed the application.

The Chief Constable appealed this decision.

The Appeal

The Court of Appeal, allowing the appeal, struck out the claim. Finding that the police officers who attended Mr Kendall’s road traffic collision did not owe a duty of care to make the road safer for later motorists.

The Court considered the following avenues argued by the Claimant:

  • Making matters worse;
  • Assumption of the duty;
  • Assumption of responsibility.

The Court of Appeal did not accept that the police had made matters worse. It had been argued that the police had made matters worse as prior to their arrival Mr Kendall had been stood warning motorists of the risk of ice, however, once police arrived Mr Kendall stopped this. It was held that the Police had done nothing to increase or create the hazard of black ice. The Court of Appeal held that “in general the duty of the public authority is to avoid causing damage, not to prevent future damage due to causes for which they were not responsible.” (See paragraph 54).

The Court further rejected the argument that the police had assumed a duty of care or responsibility. It was said that knowledge of the danger and the power to deal with it, was not in itself an assumption of responsibility.

The Court of Appeal re-affirmed that in the absence of specific statutory provisions which creates a civil liability public authorities owe the same duties as individuals and   “merely acting ineffectually” is unlikely to lead to a finding of liability (see paragraph 54).


The case confirms that the test for public authorities is essentially whether they made the situation worse, and that transient and ineffectual acts or intervention will not fall within that (see paragraph 74). Going forward, Claimants will likely need to focus on demonstrating that matters were specifically made worse.

This article was written by Emily Slocombe.

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