The “Eggshell Skull Rule” and the Impact of Arrest

I have previously blogged about the impact an arrest can have, especially on those who have a history of anxiety and depressive symptoms and are therefore at risk of a further mental illness (see The Untold Story of Police Detention ).

The law holds, by what is known as the “Egg Shell Skull” rule,  that a Defendant must take their victim as they find them, i.e. if the victim is particularly  mentally or  physically vulnerable or has a pre-existing condition resulting in them suffering greater injury from the Defendant’s actions than would be expected in an ordinary person, the Defendant remains responsible for the full extent of the injury.

I was mindful of this rule when pursuing a claim against the Court Service on behalf of an elderly client, “Sheila” (name changed), whose case has recently settled for substantial damages.

In November 2014, Sheila appeared at her local Magistrates’ Court on charges of common assault and a public order offence following an altercation with a fellow passenger on a bus.

Sheila was 68 years old and of good character. She pleaded not guilty and her case was adjourned for summary trial.

As a result of administrative difficulties, the trial was eventually listed for July 2015.

Unfortunately, Sheila failed to attend the trial as required whereupon the Court proceeded to hear the case in absentia and convicted Sheila of the offences charged.  Due to her non-appearance, the Court also issued a warrant for her arrest.

Sheila had  ‘put her head in the sand’ and hoped the case would go away.  It didn’t.  After she confided in family members, she was encouraged to hand herself in. Accordingly, a few days later Sheila voluntarily surrendered to the Court.  As a result of her non-attendance, Sheila admitted an offence contrary to section 7 of the Bail Act and was sentenced for the original offences that she had been found guilty of.

Accordingly, following this hearing Sheila was no longer ‘wanted’ and all proceedings had concluded. As a result, the Court should have taken steps to ensure that the warrant that had been issued was cancelled and withdrawn.  Sadly they didn’t.

At approximately midday the very next day, a Saturday, Metropolitan Police Officers attended Sheila’s home address and arrested her for failing to appear at Court. Her protests that the warrant had been withdrawn and that she had already been punished were ignored.

Sheila was thereafter detained at her local Police Station for the next 2 days during which she was recorded as  “extremely anxious”, “unable to concentrate on what was being said”, “upset and crying” and generally incoherent.  Eventually, she was produced at Court on Monday morning whereupon it was established that the warrant had indeed been executed and dealt with a few days before.  Accordingly, Sheila was released from custody.

In the circumstances, Sheila had a cast iron case against the Court Service for failure to ensure that the warrant was cancelled and/or for failing to update the PNC.  Court staff had failed to follow standard operating procedure causing the warrant to remain active on the Police National Computer (PNC).

I was instructed to pursue a claim on behalf of Sheila and identified that she had a claim for false imprisonment, negligence and/or breach of Human Rights (Article 5, the Right to Liberty).

Not only had Sheila been unlawfully locked up for 2 days, because of her wrongful arrest she suffered a significant deterioration in her mental health. Shortly afterwards, she had a hypomanic episode.  She was subsequently found in a paranoid and suicidal state in local woods and was detained by the Police under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act and then a few days later jumped into a river. This led to a lengthy acute psychiatric hospital admission at the conclusion of which she was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder. Following her discharge, she continued to receive treatment from the Community Mental Health Team.  She was prescribed antipsychotic medication to prevent hypomania/mania and antidepressant medication for depression and anxiety.

In October 2016, Sheila suffered a relapse in her condition.  It would appear that this relapse was triggered by a failure to take her prescribed antipsychotic medication.  She was found by a member of the public with bleach on her lips and later observed walking in and out of traffic on a busy road nearby.  She was informally admitted to a psychiatric hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983.  During this admission, Sheila verbalised her thoughts and distress about the incident in July 2015.  Antidepressant withdrawal and an increase in her antipsychotic medication helped to stabilise her mood.  Following improvement Sheila was given one week’s leave from the inpatient unit with support from the Home Treatment Team.  She was finally discharged from hospital 3 weeks later.  The Community Mental Health Team took over her care from thereon.

2 years after her unlawful arrest, Sheila remained under the care of the Community Mental Health Team and a community psychiatric nurse continued to visit her at home. She continued to take regular medication. 

Clearly, Sheila had suffered loss of liberty, but could it be said that the deterioration in her mental health was attributable to the arrest or to other factors? At the time of arrest, Sheila had a long history of anxiety and depression. Further, it was evident from her medical records that in the period leading up to her unlawful arrest, she was suffering from low mood and anxiety.

I commissioned a report from a psychiatrist who found that Sheila was likely to have had a pre-existing vulnerability to developing Bipolar Disorder, particularly in  response to significant life events and concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the stress associated with her wrongful arrest and detention triggered a hypomanic episode, subsequently classified as a Bipolar Disorder.  For the expert what was key was the temporal relationship between Sheila’s detention in police custody and the acute deterioration in her mental health only 3 days later, requiring the use of Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, and a psychiatric hospital admission  5 days after that.  

Bipolar Disorder is a very severe condition.  Many people suffer from periods of anxiety and depression from time to time, but they would be expected to recover and are essentially able to continue with their day to day life during these episodes.  The psychiatrist concluded that the condition would affect Sheila for the rest of her life.  It will be a blight on the rest of her life and she will need to take appropriate medication for Bipolar Disorder for as long as she lives, because, if she stops, she is likely to suffer a relapse.  For the most part, this medication is likely to control her condition, but she is at risk of a relapse, and Bipolar Disorder is well known to entail an increased risk of suicide.

This is a classic example of the Egg Shell Skull Rule which I referred to at the beginning of this article.  In most people, even a stressful incident such as this, including two days’ unlawful detention in Police cells, would not cause them to become ‘Bipolar’ but in Sheila’s case, because of her pre-existing vulnerability, it did.  It is quite right that the law holds the Court Service to account for the dramatic effect their wrongdoing had on Sheila, notwithstanding that in most people it would not have provoked the emergence of such a severe illness.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.