Ashley v Chief Constable of Sussex Police
House of Lords
Citations:  UKHL 25;  1 AC 962;  2 WLR 975;  3 All ER 573;  Po LR 203; (2008) 158 NLJ 632.
The claimants were the estate and dependants of a man (Ashley) who had been shot and killed during a police raid on his home. The officer who shot Ashley mistakenly believed that Ashley was about to attack him. In reality, Ashley was in bed and unarmed. The claimants sued the Chief Constable for Sussex Police in several torts, including negligence and battery.
While liability for negligence was admitted, the Chief Constable disputed the battery claim. He argued that officer who shot the deceased was acting in self-defence, and so had a defence to a battery claim. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal permitted the battery claim to proceed to trial. The defendant appealed this decision to the House of Lords.
- Where the defendant relies on self-defence in tort, is it enough that the defendant honestly believed they were under attack, or must that belief also be reasonable?
- Given that negligence had been admitted, was there any point in the battery claim proceeding to trial?
The House of Lords dismissed the appeal, holding in favour of the claimants. A defendant relying on self-defence in tort must have a reasonable belief that he is under attack. The battery claim could vindicate rights, and so should be allowed to proceed.
This Case is Authority For…
The criteria for establishing self-defence in tort is not the same as in criminal law. It is not enough that the belief in an attack was honestly held. The belief must also be reasonable.
There can be value in a claim proceeding to trial even if substantial damages will not be obtained. This will be the case if the claimant shows that a trial would serve the purpose of vindicating his rights.
Lord Scott argued that the underlying purpose of tort law is very different from that of criminal law. In criminal law, only subjectively culpable behaviour should attract penal sanction and potential loss of liberty. It is therefore rare that the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions is relevant. Loss of liberty and penal stigma is not an issue in tort. Instead, the primary concern in tort is the claimant’s right not to be subject to physical violence. This justified different standards being applied in relation to self-defence.
Lord Scott also speculated that it might not even be enough that the defendant’s belief was reasonable. The defendant might have to show that he was actually under attack.
Lord Neuberger dissented on the issue of whether the battery claim should be allowed to proceed. He argued that almost every other possible avenue of vindicating the claimant’s rights had been exhausted: there had been a public apology, prosecution of the officer, internal inquiries and public investigations. He therefore concluded that there was no point to the battery claim.