In recent years, digital assets including cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have commanded considerable media attention. Speaking extra-judicially in the foreward to the UKJT Statement on Crypto-assets and Smart Contracts in November 2019, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, has stated that: “In legal terms, cryptoassets and smart contracts undoubtedly represent the future”. To what extent should the law of the future grant property rights in respect of crypto assets? Will the inalienable right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions apply to tokens existing only on the blockchain? Or to NFTs residing only in the ‘metaverse’?
These are the questions addressed in depth by the Law Commission’s recently published consultation paper on Digital Assets (July 2022). In this article, the author offers a number of predictions about the future direction of English law based upon the Law Commission’s paper.
In Hughes v Rattan  EWHC 2032 (QB), the High Court was asked to answer the following question. Was the owner of a dental practice liable for the dental negligence of a self-employed dentist engaged to work in the practice? The claim arose from NHS care provided by three different associate dentists. The preliminary issue was whether the practice owner was liable by reason of: a) a non-delegable duty of care; or b) vicarious liability. The Court answered: “yes” and “yes”.
(1) The claimant is a patient or a child, or for some other reason is especially vulnerable or dependent on the protection of the defendant against the risk of injury. Other examples are likely to be prisoners and residents in care homes.
(2) There is an antecedent relationship between the claimant and the defendant, independent of the negligent act or omission itself, (i) which places the claimant in the actual custody, charge or care of the defendant, and (ii) from which it is possible to impute to the defendant the assumption of a positive duty to protect the claimant from harm, and not just a duty to refrain from conduct which will foreseeably damage the claimant. It is a characteristic of such relationships that they involve an element of control over the claimant, which varies in intensity from one situation to another, but is clearly very substantial in the case of schoolchildren.
(3) The claimant has no control over how the defendant chooses to preform those obligations i.e. whether personally or through employees or through third parties.
(4) The defendant has delegated to a third party some function which is an integral part of the positive duty which he has assumed towards the claimant; and the third party is exercising, for the purpose of the function thus delegated to him, the defendant’s custody or care of the claimant and the element of control that goes with it.
(5) The third party has been negligent not in some collateral respect but in the performance of the very function assumed by the defendant and delegated by the defendant to him.
In Khan v. Meadows UKSC 21 the Supreme Court has revisited the principles to be applied in “wrongful birth” claims: claims for the cost of bringing up a disabled child who would not have been born but for a doctor’s negligent medical advice/treatment. However, the judgment has implications beyond the world of clinical negligence litigation. The Supreme Court has taken the opportunity to clarify the components or ingredients of the tort negligence more generally. In particular, the Court has affirmed the importance of the “scope of duty” principle: a principle which limits the recoverability of damages wherever it applies. In particular, it is not sufficient for a claimant to establish that – with competent advice – they would have made a different decision about their treatment or care. They must also demonstrate that the particular harm that they have suffered fell within the scope of the defendant’s duty of care.
In Evie Toombes v. Dr. Philip Mitchell  EWHC 3506 the High Court has given renewed consideration to claims for, so called, “wrongful life”. Can a disabled person ever claim damages on the basis that they would not have been born but for the defendant’s negligence? The Court answered that question with a resounding “yes”.
Where a disabled child would not have been born but for the Defendant’s negligence, it is well established that their parent has a claim for the reasonable costs associated with the child’s disability . That is a “wrongful birth” claim: see Parkinson  EWCA Civ 530. However, the child cannot bring a claim for personal injury on the basis that, with competent advice, their mother would have chosen a termination. In McKay v. Essex Area Health Authority  2 All ER 771 the Court of Appeal affirmed the principle that a disabled claimant cannot sue for “wrongful life”. In Toombes the Court reconsidered the scope of that prohibition. Did it apply only to termination cases? Or did it extend to claims that, absent the negligence, a disabled person would never have been conceived?
In Ecila Henderson v. Dorset Healthcare University NHS Trust Foundation  UKSC 43 the Supreme Court has revisited the defence of illegality (“ex turpi causa”) in the context of a claim for clinical negligence.
The claimant — a mental health patient — had committed a criminal offence as a result of the defendant health authority’s admitted negligence. Can a claimant, who would not have committed an offence but for the Defendant’s negligence, recover losses arising from their own criminality? Can they seek compensation for the pain, suffering and loss of earnings caused by a custodial sentence? Can they recover general damages for feelings of guilt and remorse? The Supreme Court answered these questions with a resounding “no”.
Ms Henderson suffered from paranoid schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Whilst under the care of the Defendant’s community mental health team she stabbed her mother to death. She did so whilst experiencing a serious psychotic episode. She was convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.
In sentencing her, the judge said that: “… there is no suggestion in your case that you should be seen as bearing a significant degree of responsibility for what you did”. The judge sentenced Ms Henderson to a hospital order under the Mental Health Act 1983.
Ms Henderson subsequently brought a civil claim against the Defendant Trust. The Trust admitted liability for its negligent failure to return her to hospital when her psychiatric condition deteriorated and accepted that, if it had done this, the tragic killing of Ms Henderson’s mother would not have taken place.
However, the Trust argued that Ms Henderson’s claim was barred for illegality (“ex turpi causa”), because the damages she claimed resulted from: (i) the sentence imposed on her by the criminal court; and/or (ii) her own criminal act of manslaughter.
In the Christian Brothers case Lord Phillips of famously declared that “the law of vicarious liability is on the move”. The recent decision of the Supreme Court in Barclays Bank v. Various Claimants UKSC 13 has brought that movement to a juddering halt. The question posed by the appeal was a simple one. Is it possible to be vicariously liable for the acts of a self-employed ‘independent contractor’?The answer the Court gave in this case was ‘no’.
The group litigation concerned the vicarious liability of Barclays for sexual assaults in the 1970s and early 1980s. The alleged assaults were committed in the North East by a now deceased general practitioner: Dr Bates.
Dr Bates was a self-employed medical practitioner with a portfolio practice. His work included conducting medical assessments and examinations of prospective Barclays employees. Barclays required job applicants – many of them aged 16 or under – to pass pre-employment medical examinations as part of its recruitment procedures. Barclays arranged the appointments with Dr Bates and provided him with a pro forma report headed “Barclays Confidential Medical Report”. Dr Bates was paid a fee for each report. If the report was satisfactory, the applicant’s job offer would be confirmed, subject to satisfactory GCE examination results.
Dr Bates conducted the (unchaperoned) medical examinations in a consulting room at his home. It was alleged that Dr Bates sexually assaulted 126 claimants in the group action during their medical examinations. After Dr Bates died in 2009, the claimants sought damages from Barclays.
Two recent cases have important consequences for regulated professionals who fail to participate in regulatory hearings. In Kuzmin v. GMC  EWHC 2129 (Admin) the issue was whether a tribunal can draw adverse inferences if a doctor declines to give evidence. Sanusi v. GMC  EWCA Civ 1172 concerned the tribunal’s duty of procedural fairness where a professional fails to attend the hearing at all.
Kuzmin v. GMC
The Claimant was a GP who faced an allegation of dishonesty. It was alleged that he had failed (dishonestly) to draw his employer’s attention to conditions imposed by the Interim Orders Tribunal. The doctor failed in his half-time submission of no case to answer. The doctor then indicated that he would not be giving any evidence and applied to withdraw his witness statement. The GMC sought a preliminary ruling that, as a matter of principle, the Tribunal had the power to draw adverse inferences in such circumstances. The Tribunal agreed, whereupon the Claimant sought an adjournment and applied for judicial review.
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