Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co Ltd [1970]

Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co Ltd [1970] UKHL 2, [1970] AC 1004 is a landmark case in English tort law that significantly expanded the scope of negligence liability. The House of Lords' decision in this case marked the beginning of a rapid evolution in the circumstances under which a court was likely to find a duty of care. The case addressed issues related to government bodies' liability, a person's responsibility for acts facilitated by third parties, and liability for omissions.

In September 1962, ten borstal trainees under the control of three Home Office officers were working on Brownsea Island. Seven trainees escaped while the officers retired to bed, and the escapees, boarding a yacht, collided with another yacht owned by the respondents, causing damage. The yacht owners sued the Home Office for negligence, claiming damages.

A preliminary issue was raised to determine whether the officers or the Home Office owed a duty of care capable of giving rise to liability in damages. It was admitted that the Home Office would be vicariously liable if an action could be brought against any of the officers. The Court of Appeal found, in favour of Dorset Yacht Co, that there was a legal duty of care, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The Home Office appealed to the House of Lords, arguing against the recognition of a duty of care.

Lord Denning MR, in the Court of Appeal, held that the Home Office should be liable for the damage based on public policy. He expressed a departure from the previous norm, stating that the risk of negligence should not fall solely on the innocent victim. Lord Denning emphasised the need to hold the Borstal institution officers liable for negligence.

The House of Lords, in a 4–1 decision, upheld the Court of Appeal's decision. Lord Reid asserted that the principle of duty of care, as articulated in Lord Atkin's speech in Donoghue v Stevenson [1932], should be regarded as a statement of principle and should apply unless there is a justification or valid explanation for its exclusion. Viscount Dilhorne provided a dissenting judgment.

Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co is significant for elucidating the Atkinian notion of neighbourhood and adopting an incrementalist approach to the development of the duty of care. Lord Reid emphasised a trend toward regarding negligence law as depending on principle, allowing for its application to new circumstances unless justified exclusion exists. The case set a precedent for holding government bodies liable and marked a shift in the approach to establishing a duty of care in negligence cases.
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