People who suffer psychiatric injuries after witnessing distressing events are subjected to a “harsh and outdated” system of redress, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has said, calling for a change in the law.
Responding to the Law Commission’s call for ideas for its next programme of law reform, it said the law on psychiatric injury for witnesses, or ‘secondary victims’, needs to be re-examined.
APIL president Matthew Stockwell said: “The law is currently very rigid and denies some victims the ability to bring a case for compensation to help put their lives back on track. Psychiatric injury doesn’t follow any rules on who will suffer or how, it just doesn’t work that way. The law surrounding it should be more flexible to reflect that”.
Also, only the spouse or fiancé, parents, and children, of the original victim are presumed to have the ‘close tie of love and affection’ required to be eligible to bring a case.
“Brothers, sisters, and unmarried partners, for example, have to prove their relationship, which could involve jumping through a lot of high hoops at a difficult time,” said Mr Stockwell.
The law was set out in the 1992 Alcock case following the Hillsborough disaster, which ruled that the victims’ family members, who suffered psychiatric injuries after witnessing the tragedy unfold on television or from another area of the stadium, could not pursue compensation. Claimants had to have been present at the scene and witnessed the event directly.
Mr Stockwell said: “In the 20-plus years since the law on psychiatric injuries of secondary witnesses was established, technology and the way we interact with each other has experienced a revolution. The law has remained far too strict… Witnessing a tragedy happen to a loved one through a webcam or while on a video call, for example, is very possible.
“Psychiatric injuries can be just as serious as the physical ones and this must be remembered in a proper review and overhaul of the system, to help victims get the help they need.”
Writing recently on Legal Futures, leading personal injury lawyer John Spencer – also vice-president of APIL – said it was “high time” to revisit Alcock given what has since emerged about the Hillsborough disaster.
“It seems more than possible that its principles were informed by the extraordinary level of misinformation dominating the media and political agendas at the time,” he said. “It is time for this particular patchwork quilt to be unstitched and put back together in a way that offers real justice for victims of psychiatric injury.”