A bid by a former Law Lord to deny the controversial Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill – the so-called SARAH Bill – a second reading in the House of Lords failed yesterday after the Labour Party chose to abstain.
Though supporting the sentiment behind the amendment laid by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, Labour frontbench spokesman Lord Beecham said the House is usually “cautious” about defeating a bill so early in its parliamentary progress, adding that such a move would give “a trivial bill far too high a profile for its contents”.
Already approved by the House of Commons, despite criticism, 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.
Led by Lord Lloyd, opponents argued yesterday that the bill does not advance the law beyond the position already stated in section 1 of the 2006 Compensation Act, and that it was not the purpose of legislation merely to send a message.
Former Supreme Court justice Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said: “I find it difficult to see how a court could find, in any of these clauses, anything which would lead it to a different conclusion on the facts of a case. I await an explanation of how that could arise.
“However, if it is intended to change the law, I respectfully submit that that should be made altogether clearer than it is at present. Just what change is it intended to bring about?”
Former Conservative home secretary Lord Hurd said: “If you are contemplating a brave action which may carry some risk, such as diving into a pool or rescuing somebody from a dangerous situation, you are almost certainly taking a quick decision on the spur of the moment. You are not going to creep away and find a book to memorise the course of a debate in your Lordships’ House. So this is a bad way of sending a message.”
However, other peers backed the bill, expressing concern about the impact of the so-called compensation culture and growth of health and safety restrictions.
Baroness Hodgson of Abinger said: “The effect of the bill will be to encourage our fellow citizens to step forward to participate and to become more active members of their community. It will contribute to inspiring them to help others and to pay something back to society, while at the same time offering them reassurance and a degree of protection when things do not go entirely to plan or, as is inevitably the case, accidents happen.”
Justice minister Lord Faulks said the bill’s core aim was “to provide reassurance to people who act in socially beneficial ways, behave in a generally responsible manner, or act selflessly to protect someone in danger by ensuring that the courts recognise their actions and always take that context into account in the event that something goes wrong and they are sued”.
He insisted that it will change the law: “Clause 3 of the bill requires the court to have regard to whether a person, in carrying out the activity in the course of which the alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred, demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others.
“This represents a change to the law, as case law does not currently require a court to do this. Clause 3 will oblige the court to weigh that factor in the balance when considering a person’s liability for negligence, or breach of a relevant statutory duty. This will reassure organisations, individuals and small businesses who have taken a generally responsible approach to the safety of others during an activity that the law is on their side.”
And while the minister accepted that “one should be very cautious indeed before legislating simply to send a message… on the other hand, I suggest that it would be idle to pretend that part of what we do is not conveying an important message”.
In light of Labour’s position, Lord Lloyd did not press his amendment to a vote. The bill will now go into committee, where Lord Lloyd said he will seek to have the three operative clauses removed, while Lord Beecham promised to try and make some “modest improvements”.