Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire – Case Summary

Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire

House of Lords

Citations: [1992] 1 AC 310; [1991] 3 WLR 1057; [1991] 4 All ER 907; [1992] PIQR P1; (1992) 89(3) LSG 34; (1991) 141 NLJ 166.


The claimants were all people who suffered psychological harm as a result of witnessing the Hillsborough disaster. They were friends, relatives and spouses of people who had died in the stampede when Hillsborough football stadium became dangerously overcrowded. The overcrowding was due to police negligence. Some of the claimants witnessed events from other parts of the stadium. Some witnessed the events on television. Others did not witness the event, but suffered harm when they were told their relatives had been injured or saw their bodies in the morgue or hospital. The claimants sued the defendant (the employer of the police officers attending the event) in negligence.

  1. Did the police owe the claimants a duty of care with respect to their psychiatric harm?

The House of Lords held in favour of the defendant. Each claim failed for different reasons, such as: there was no evidence of a close tie of affection; the claimants had not witnessed the events with unaided senses; and the claimants had not viewed the immediate aftermath because too much time had passed before they saw the victim’s bodies.

This Case is Authority For…

The law distinguishes between primary and secondary victims of psychiatric harm. Primary victims are:

  • Those within the zone of danger created by the negligence;
  • Those who are not within the zone of danger created by the negligence but who reasonably believe themselves to be;
  • Those who reasonably believe they have caused the death or serious injury of another.

Any other person is a secondary victim. For a duty to be owed to protect a secondary victim from psychiatric harm, the following criteria must be met:

  1. The claimant must share a close tie of love and affection with someone injured or killed in the event;
  2. The claimant must have close geographical and temporal proximity with the event or its immediate aftermath;
  3. The claimant must have witnessed something horrifying with unaided senses;
  4. The claimant must have suffered harm by way of a ‘sudden shock’ as a result.

Lord Keith of Kinkel stated that a close tie of love and affection is presumed between spouses, and for parents towards their children. For all other relationships, it must be proven.

Lord Keith of Kinkel and Lord Ackner explained that an event would not be witnessed with ‘unaided senses’ if it was seen on television or communicated by a third-party.

Lord Ackner distinguished ‘sudden shock’ cases from those in which psychiatric illness is inflicted by the gradual stress of grief or having to look after an injured person. He defined shock as ‘the sudden appreciation by sight or sound of a horrifying event, which violently agitates the mind.’


Some of the Lords made obiter statements indicating that the Alcock criteria could be departed from in some cases:

  • Lord Keith of Kinkel commented that psychiatric harm to an unconnected bystander might still be foreseeable if the event was particularly horrific.
  • Lord Ackner thought that not all cases where the accident is viewed remotely would be excluded. He speculated where what was seen on television was equivalent to seeing it in person, the ‘unaided senses’ requirement could be dispensed with. He gave the example of a live broadcast filming close-up to an event where the accident unexpectedly occurs.

These dicta has not been followed in any other case, however.

The House of Lords also indicated that the window of time constituting the ‘immediate aftermath’ of the event is very short. For example, they did not consider a man who witnessed the disfigured body of his brother-in-law in the morgue eight hours after the disaster to have witnessed the immediate aftermath.