Nearly 25 years after Hillsborough, time for change in psychiatric injury law, says APIL

Stockwell: psychiatric injury doesn’t follow any rules

People who suffer psychiatric injuries after witnessing distressing events are subjected to a “harsh and outdated” system of redress, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has said, calling for a change in the law.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.”

    Readers Comments

  • Rob says:

    Both the law & health response have many lessons to now learn from Hillsborough. Lessons that were not properly addressed due to the cover up.

    I went to House of Commons and heard this in speech from Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary:

    “I do not think we have begun fully to appreciate the scale of the suffering and loss, the true human cost of the tragedy, and the devastating psychological impact on survivors. From the midst of the most harrowing scenes imaginable—truly, hell on earth—thousands of them were simply left to drift home from Hillsborough, to try to make sense of what they had seen without counselling or support. Even worse, they were left to read in the days that followed that they were in some way to blame for what had happened. People talk to me of the lost souls that are scattered throughout the communities of Merseyside, the north-west and beyond, haunted by what they saw and never the same again. Tonight I think about them as we finally put right this terrible wrong. Does the Health Secretary agree that never again should people suffering trauma and shock on such a scale be left without the counselling and support that they need for their mental health? Will he give serious thought to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) about support for such services on the ground now?
    In making this speech tonight, I think of my constituent Stephen Whittle, who on the morning of 15 April 1989 gave his ticket to a friend who never came home, and who just over a year ago took his own life, leaving everything he had to the Hillsborough families. Recent events will have been unbearably painful for Stephen’s family, but I hope they will take some comfort from the fact that the campaign that he cared about has finally prevailed.”
    Much improvement still needed and lessons still to be learned. Justice for all affected by Hillsborough.

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