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15.03.06: Duty of Care to Cellmate in Jail Suicide

In Butchart v The Home Office, 15 March 2006 the Court of Appeal has considered a strike out application by the Home Office in respect of a psychiatric injury claim by Mr Butchart arising from the suicide of his cell mate, Ian Holms.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the control mechanisms set out in Frost v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1999] 2AC 455 (the Hillsborough litigation) do not arise because of the nature of the relationship between a prisoner and the Prison Service. Mr Butchart did not have to prove ‘close ties of love and affection’ to the deceased to recover compensation for forseeable psychiatric damage.

In circumstances where a prisoner is vulnerable to psychiatric harm, the Prison Service therefore owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimise that risk.

Further, the decision to place a suicidal prisoner with Mr Butchart was capable of amounting to a breach of that duty even where the claimant had consented to the placement. A breach of the duty might also arise through inadequate monitoring of the placement.

In also dismissing the Prison Service’s application for summary judgment, the Court of Appeal commented that the Prison Service’s argument that the risk of Mr Holm’s suicide was not foreseeable failed to recognise the opinion of the Regional Secure Unit that Mr Holms was at ‘long term risk of self harm and attempted suicide’.

The responsibilities that therefore rested with the Prison Service will fall to be considered by the trial judge "in the light of the inevitable constraints imposed by what is reasonably practicable in a prison community."