Cox v Ministry of Justice – Case Summary

Cox v Ministry of Justice

Supreme Court

Citations: [2016] UKSC 10; [2016] AC 660; [2016] 2 WLR 806; [2017] 1 All ER 1; [2016] ICR 470; [2016] IRLR 370; [2016] PIQR P8.


The claimant managed a prison kitchen. Prisoners were obliged to work in the kitchen and were paid a small wage in return. However, they were not legally the prison’s employees. The claimant was accidentally injured by one of the prisoners dropping a bag of rice on her back. She sued the Ministry of Justice, arguing that they were vicariously liable for the prisoner’s negligence.

  1. Could the relationship between the defendant and the prisoner give rise to vicarious liability?
  2. Was there a sufficiently close connection between that relationship and the relevant tort?

The Supreme Court held in favour of the claimant. The defendant was vicariously liable for the prisoner’s negligence. This was because the prisoners worked for the defendant’s benefit, which created the risk of negligence.

This Case is Authority For…

A relationship can give rise to vicarious liability even if there is no employment contract between the defendant and the primary tortfeasor. An appropriate relationship exists where the primary tortfeasor ‘carries on activities as an integral part of the business activities carried on by a defendant and for its benefit’. ‘Benefit’ does not need to be commercial or financial benefit.

As this case shows, if the activity is for the defendant’s benefit it does not matter that the primary tortfeasor also benefits. The prisoners were said to benefit from rehabilitation activities, but this did not preclude vicarious liability. However, Lord Reed stated that there will be no appropriate relationship if the primary tortfeasor’s activities are ‘entirely attributable to the conduct of a recognisably independent business of his own or of a third party’.

There is a sufficiently close link between the relationship and the tort if, by assigning activities to the primary tortfeasor, the defendant created the risk of the tort.


Lord Reed commented on Lord Phillip’s five factors of vicarious liability set out in the Catholic Child Welfare case. He said that:

  1. The fact that the defendant is more able to pay compensation than the primary tortfeasor is unlikely to be of independent importance in most cases. Wealth is not grounds by itself to hold someone liable.
  2. The employer’s control over the primary tortfeasor is not particularly important in the modern era. However, if the employer had no control over the primary tortfeasor whatsoever, vicarious liability is unlikely.