Refuge and Liberty intervene in landmark domestic homicide case in Supreme Court in attempt to remove immunity which protects police from negligence claims

25 July 2014

On 28th and 29th July 2014, the national domestic violence charity Refuge is intervening - alongside Liberty - in a landmark case in the Supreme Court brought by the family of Joanna Michael, a young woman who was brutally murdered by her ex-partner, Cyron Williams, in August 2009.

Joanna called 999 twice on the night she was killed, but when officers arrived she had already been stabbed to death.  Her two young children were in the house at the time of the murder.  The second time Joanna called she was heard screaming before the line went dead (summary of case below).  

In 2010, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that South Wales Police and Gwent Police both failed her.  IPCC Commissioner Tom Davies said: “The simple fact is that at 2.29am when Joanna called 999 an immediate police response could have got to her house in five minutes. Because of all the various failings the emergency response did not arrive until 2.50am, when she had already been stabbed, probably at about 2.45am.”  (Full IPCC statement here).

Joanna’s family are claiming damages against Gwent Police and South Wales Police for their failings in relation to the killing, which they say contributed to Joanna’s death.  The Court of Appeal has struck out their claim for negligence – essentially because the law as it currently stands gives the police immunity from negligence claims. 

Joanna’s family is cross-appealing the Court of Appeal’s decision to strike out the negligence claim.  Refuge and Liberty are intervening to argue against the immunity which protects the police from negligence claims, which we believe leaves the police unaccountable when they fail women and children – something that happens all too often.  Two women are killed every week by current or former partners in England and Wales.  In too many of these cases, women and their children are let down by the police and other state agencies prior to their deaths.  Refuge believes that this is unacceptable, and it is calling for the Government to open a public inquiry into this issue.    

The police are also appealing against the decision of the Court of Appeal to allow a claim under the Human Rights Act to proceed to trial.  Refuge is supporting the family in arguing against the police’s appeal.  We believe that this claim should proceed to trial and we are arguing that when the courts consider whether the police have violated Article 2 of the Human Rights Act (the right to life) in a domestic homicide case, they must take into account the gendered nature of violence against women, and the way that risk develops in domestic violence.

Article 2 of the Human Rights Act can impose positive obligations on the police and other state bodies to protect life.  Liberty and Refuge will argue that the actions of the state agencies involved with Joanna’s family must be seen in the round, and that their obligation to protect Joanna arose because of all that they knew about her domestic situation.  The police ought not to be able to hide extremely serious failings because of this immunity, as risks happening here.

Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, says:

"Joanna Michael died a needless death – just like countless other victims of domestic violence.  The list of women who have been failed by the police and other state agencies is shockingly long.  Week by week it grows longer. 

"We must put an end to this disgraceful state of affairs.  Removing the immunity which protects police from negligence claims would be a positive first step.  It is vital that the police are held to account when they fail to protect women and children.  The scale of police failure on domestic violence is quite breath-taking.  Just a few months ago HMIC issued a stark warning after conducting national inspection of all police forces, finding that serious failings in core policing duties are putting victims of domestic violence at unnecessary risk.  Mounting evidence of police failure has also been unearthed by an endless stream of IPCC reports, Domestic Homicide Reviews, Serious Case Reviews and inquests.  Each finding repeats the same, depressing refrain of mistakes, missed opportunities and oversights. 

"Failure of this magnitude must not go unchallenged.  That’s why Refuge is calling on the Government to open a public inquiry into the response of the police and other state agencies to victims of domestic violence.  We need a radical shift in the way we, as a society, view domestic violence – and in the way our state agencies respond to victims.  We cannot let the deaths of women like Joanna Michael be in vain.  Please add your name to our campaign by signing our petition for a public inquiry: www.refuge.org.uk/publicinquiry."

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, says:

"One incident of domestic violence is reported every 30 seconds and two women a week are killed by a male partner or ex-partner.  Joanna could be alive if the authorities had fulfilled their duties under the Human Rights Act.  They can't be allowed to hide such failings under the cloak of police immunity."

Sarah Ricca, solicitor for Refuge and Liberty, says:

“For too long the police have failed victims of domestic violence – and for too long they’ve been protected by the law.  The Human Rights Act has made inroads into that protection but this important piece of legislation is vulnerable to repeal by Parliament.  This appeal is about strengthening police accountability in the UK, through the rights protected by the European Convention and through the English common law right not to be caused harm by negligence.”

Summary of Joanna Michael case

  • During Joanna’s relationship with Cyron Williams there were several reports of domestic violence involving the police
  • Joanna ended the relationship in late June 2009
  • On 5th August 2009 at 2.29am, Joanna dialled 999.  Her call was 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 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

For more information or to request a spokesperson from Refuge please contact Elaine Hake on elaine_hake@refuge.org.uk or 0207 395 7731 / 07970 894240.

Please note: the family of Joanna Michael are not available for comment or interview.