Claims against the government
If you've been injured by someone acting on behalf of the government, you may be able to sue the government vicariously. Let's say, for example, that you're involved in a vehicle accident with a police car or a rubbish collection vehicle operated by a local authority, and you can prove that the policeman or dustman drove negligently. Under the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, you can hold the government liable for the tort (which is the legal term for any action or inaction that causes harm to someone).
Limitations and exceptions
There are some limits on the extent to which you can hold a government agency liable for an injury, however.
For example, the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 does not permit members of the armed forces to sue one another for injuries arising in the course of their service -- although this exception has been pared down by subsequent legislation and case law.
In addition, there are limits on the duty of care owed by public bodies. For instance, the police generally do not have a duty of care to warn the public of dangerous road conditions -- even though they might normally make every effort to do so.
Finding the correct defendant and giving notice of a claim
A solicitor who is making a claim against a public body on behalf of an injured person faces the same question she would face in any other case -- namely, who is the defendant? When you think about it, the UK has a large number of different public bodies, including local authorities, central government departments, NHS trusts, the Highways Agency, etc.
Ordinarily a solicitor should be able to work out who the defendant ought to be, but sometimes the question can be difficult. For instance, what happens if someone is injured on the grounds of a foundation trust school (i.e., where the school's land and building are owned by the foundation/trust, but the school receives funding central government via local education authorities)? What if a person is struck and injured by a police car, but didn't see the logo on the car and therefore doesn't know which constabulary it belongs to.
Once a solicitor determines which public body is the defendant, she must follow certain rules as to how to where to send a letter of claim and how to give notice of proceedings. With a central government department, she might be required to give notice to the department's internal solicitor or to the Treasury Solicitor. When bringing suit against the police, the usual rule is that one sues the Chief Constable for the particular police force.
Public interest immunity
A person making a personal injury claim (against any person, whether a government body, company or natural person) is required by court rules to disclose a certain amount of information about his case early in the process. The same is true of the person defending the claim.
In some cases, a government body will say that public interest immunity protects it from having to disclose information it might be against the public interest to disclose, such as information affecting national security. Ordinarily an official in the public body that is being sued will give a certificate claiming that public interest immunity prevents the disclosure of certain information. In most cases, the courts will simply accept such a certificate, but in some cases the court will review the matter. Ultimately, it is up to the court to decide whether public interest immunity applies.
In routine personal injury cases involving public bodies, public interest immunity is not likely to apply. If a person slips and falls on a wet floor in a county hall building, it seems unlikely that any disclosure required in such a case would affect national security!
- Learn more about personal injury law (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Personal injury law news (The Solicitor)
- Personal injury law Q&A (Community forum)