Registered social landlords and public authorities will be breathing a sigh of relief following a recent decision of the House of Lords on the duty of care owed by landlords to protect tenants from anti-social behaviour by their neighbours.

Glasgow City Council had appealed against a decision of the Court of Session which allowed a proof before answer, to debate in court on a point of principle. The case raised fundamental issues about the scope of the duty that is owed to third parties by landlords including local authorities and other social landlords whose tenants are abusive or violent to their neighbours. The decision also has wider implications for local authorities, with regard to the duties owed in discharging their statutory functions.

Summary of case

The case was raised by the widow and daughter of an elderly man who was attacked and killed by his next door neighbour following a long running dispute. The family raised a claim for damages from the local authority for the loss, injury and damage they had suffered.

The deceased and his assailant, Mr Drummond, were tenants of Glasgow City Council. At a meeting with the Council, Mr Drummond was advised that the Council were considering issuing a further notice for recovery of possession. Mr Drummond reacted by losing his temper and becoming abusive although apologising shortly after. After leaving the meeting Mr Drummond fatally assaulted the deceased.

The family claimed that the Council was guilty of negligence at common law for failing to fulfil their duty of care owed to the deceased by warning him that the meeting was taking place thereby allowing him to take steps to avoid an attack. It also claimed that the Council acted in a way that was in breach of the deceased's right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights ("ECHR").

Judgment of House of Lords

The reasoning for the House of Lords' decision can be separated into two parts;

1. Common law argument

The court established that:

  • foreseeability of harm is not always enough to impose a duty of care;
  • foreseeability alone is not enough to impose a duty to safeguard a person from criminal acts of third parties; and
  • it is not fair, just and reasonable to impose such a duty where proper actions are being taken for the general good of the community despite those actions provoking another to commit a criminal act.

2. Article 2 ECHR argument

The court established that:

  • the Council did not act in a way that was in breach of the deceased's right under Article 2 of the ECHR.
  • there was no reason why the Council ought to have known that when Mr Drummond left the meeting there was a "real and immediate risk" to the deceased's life. While Mr Drummond was abusive in the meeting he did not say anything to alert the Council of any risk to the deceased.

Notably a number of housing associations entered the case as third party interveners so that their interests might be considered by the court due to the far-reaching implications of this issue for landlords particularly in the private and voluntary sectors.

Future implications for registered social landlords and public authorities

The court recognised that to impose a duty to warn may deter social landlords from intervening to reduce the incidence of anti-social behaviour. The court also expressed the view that those tasked with dealing with anti social behaviour should be safeguarded from legal proceedings which would arise out of the imposition of such a duty. The imposition of such a duty would be likely to create an onerous burden on social landlords to effectively do the job of the police in the context of crime prevention. Not only would this result in costly duplication of the work of the police it would also require Councils and housing associations to fulfill a role for which they do not have the necessary resources or training.

This decision must be followed with a degree of caution. What the judgment makes clear is that a duty to warn may arise where a Council, or any social landlord, by its words or conduct assumes responsibility for the safety of a person who is at risk. In circumstances such as those described in Mitchell, frontline staff dealing with difficult people or difficult situations will be particularly vulnerable and appropriate training may be required.