Government hype about its Bill to protect ‘everyday heroes’ will put vulnerable people at risk, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has claimed on the eve of its second reading in the House of Commons.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling told Saturday’s Daily Telegraph that the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill – the so-called SARAH Bill – is “out to try and slay the health and safety culture”.
But APIL insisted that it is “a license for have-a-go heroes to cause needless injury, for volunteers who work with children and elderly people to escape proper vetting, and for rogue bosses to dodge their responsibilities to look after their employees”.
The Bill is just five clauses long and applies when the court, in considering a claim that a person was negligent or in breach of statutory duty, determines the steps the person was required to take to meet the standard of care.
Under the Bill, the judge will need to have regard to whether the negligence or breach occurred when the person: was acting for the benefit of society or any of its members; demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others; or was acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger and without regard to their own safety or other interest.
APIL president John Spencer argued that the Bill adds nothing to the current law. “But the real danger is that populist government rhetoric about the Bill will lead people to believe they are impervious to the law if they injure someone through their own recklessness while being ‘heroic’.
“Those responsible for vetting volunteers to work with children will feel they can cut corners in the process, leaving youngsters vulnerable to predatory adults, because the law is said to protect volunteers.
“Employers will believe they can avoid the law if they injure workers, provided they are ‘doing their best’. But what if their best is not good enough?”
Speaking in Parliament last week, shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle said the “pleasing sounding but completely vacuous” Bill just replicated Labour’s 2006 Compensation Act. The government was wasting time with a “PR exercise”, she claimed.
Mr Grayling told the Telegraph: “It is about trying to restore common sense to the kind of situations which happen all too often and very seldom get to court – where somebody has an accident at work, it’s entirely their own fault, they have got a perfectly responsible employer who has the normal health and safety procedures in place but that person does something dumb, hurts themselves and sues the employer anyway.”
Acknowledging it as a “populist piece of legislation”, a briefing last week from Steve Thomas, director of market and public affairs at defendant insurance firm Keoghs, said that once SARAH becomes law, “it will be about correct case selection and using the Act to test the new boundaries with the courts”.
Mr Thomas noted that the 2006 Act, which had similar ambitions and introduced the phrase ‘desirable activity’, had proven a damp squib and rarely been used by defendants to defend or mitigate claims.