The recent case of AB v Chief Constable of X Constabulary provided the High Court with an opportunity to review the doctrine of ex turpi causa and it’s application in personal injury cases.
AB was an undercover police officer of the defendant Constabulary who was deployed to another region to obtain intelligence in relation to a serious organized criminal group. During the deployment AB engaged in the use of cocaine and did not report this to his superiors. It was common ground that this failure to report drug use made it inappropriate for AB to continue in the undercover role and he would be reassigned. AB was offered alternative employment within the Constabulary but instead chose to apply for ill-health retirement. AB subsequently issued a claim for damages against his former employer for breach of duty in failing to provide appropriate support during his period undercover that resulted in him sustaining psychiatric injury leading to retirement. The Constabulary denied liability on the grounds that the injury was as a result of AB’s own criminal misconduct and to award damages would be an affront to public policy. Males J heard the trial of this matter in private given the sensitive nature of the undercover work undertaken by AB.
The evidence was that AB was well respected in the covert policing world for his undercover work but lost that reputation when his misconduct was exposed. AB explained that his invented criminal persona had taken over his life and it was that invented persona that had taken the cocaine and not AB. AB blamed the onset of psychiatric conditions on a lack of support from the Constabulary whilst undercover. The medical evidence identified that AB had sustained an adjustment disorder as a result of a significant life change. However, there was no evidence that AB had suffered from any mental disorder until confronted about his cocaine use. Males J held that the Claimant’s account was his way of rationalizing what had gone on but the psychiatric injury came as a result of AB being confronted about his misconduct and not his work undercover.
Males J went on to consider the impact of the doctrine of ex turpi causa in this case. He relied on the judgment of Lord Hoffmann in Gray v Thames Trains Ltd  UKHL 33 and the wider public policy rule “you cannot recover for damage which is the consequence of your own criminal act”. It was inescapable that the damage that AB had suffered was caused by his own criminal act of misusing cocaine and being confronted about it. Even if there had been a breach of duty by the defendant the injury flowed from AB’s own decision to use illegal drugs. To allow a claim for AB and to reward him damages for his own misconduct would compromise the integrity of the legal system.
The claim failed on the grounds of causation and ex turpi causa and was dismissed. In dismissing the claim Males J commented that in his opinion this was a case that should never have been pursued because of the detrimental impact it had on the Claimant’s mental health.