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Group 4 can use Victorian riot law to sue police for £32m

27 October 2009

The UK’s largest security firm, Group 4 Securicor (G4S), can use a law dating from 1886 to sue Bedfordshire Police Authority for £32m, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said the claim under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 for the cost of damage to Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre was the first involving a detention centre or prison.

Group 4 managed the centre in Bedfordshire, used to house asylum seekers, when a riot broke out in 2002 and almost half of the buildings were burnt down.

The principal claimants in the case, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Limited and GSL Limited, are both part of G4S.

Delivering the leading judgment in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Limited and others v Bedfordshire Police Authority [2009] EWCA Civ 1110, Lord Justice Rix said the court was concerned with statutory interpretation, and not with findings of fact.

Rix LJ quoted the central provision of the 1886 Act from section 2: “Where a house, shop, or building in a police area has been injured or destroyed…by any persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together, such compensation as herein-after mentioned shall be paid out of the police fund of the area to any person who has sustained loss by such injury…or destruction…”

He said the police authority argued that no duty was owed to public authorities such as the operators of a detention centre. Group 4 argued, relying on the full provisions of the Act, that it clearly provided compensation on a strict liability basis to “any person” who had sustained loss, including public institutions.

Lord Justice Rix referred to the Statute of Winchester of 1285 as an early example of the responsibility to compensate injured people being imposed on the local inhabitants of an area.

The statute made the “hundred” (part of a county) where a robbery was committed answerable for the loss unless the bodies of the robbers were produced.

Rix LJ said he could not agree that the “purposive approach” to the Act adopted by the High Court should lead to the conclusion that Group 4 was not a qualifying person.

“In the present case there would to my mind be no overbearing inconsistency, absurdity or inconvenience such as to require the court to depart from the plain meaning of the text of the statute,” he said.

“Nor is there any obscurity about that meaning such as might lead a court to prefer one of two alternative meanings in the interests of promoting rather than disappointing the purpose of the statute.”

Rix LJ allowed the appeal and declared that Group 4 was entitled to bring a claim under the 1886 Act for the riot damage within the detention centre. Lord Justice Wall agreed. Lord Justice Aitkens, who also agreed, said there had never before been any claims under the 1886 Act relating to property damaged during a riot at a detention centre or prison.

“Like Rix LJ, I cannot agree with the judge that because the underlying rationale of the 1886 Act and its predecessors was to impose a strict liability on the police authority (or its predecessor, the hundred), that assists in reaching the conclusion that the definition of any person is limited in the way the judge suggested,” he said.

Aitkens LJ said he could find no reason, “whether within the wording of the 1886 Act itself, its history, its rationale or the cases”, to restrict the meaning of any person in the way suggested by the High Court.

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