The government’s Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism (SARAH) Bill, described as “very much maligned” by justice minister Lord Faulks, has survived its report stage in the Lords, with only a minor government amendment.
Cross-bencher Lord Pannick led the attack on the bill, saying he could not remember “a legislative proposal that has been the subject of more sustained ridicule and derision”.
Lord Pannick said that if the point of the legislation was to encourage people to volunteer “and encourage heroism without people being concerned about possible litigation”, then the justice secretary should buy a half-page advert in The Daily Mail or The Sun, or, to reach younger citizens, “open a Facebook page or set up a Twitter account, and simply tell people the obvious truth – that the law is already on their side”.
Lord Pannick went on: “I object to legislation being used by the government to send what is no more than a political message.
“The Lord Chancellor ought to understand that it is part—an important part—of the rule of law that the statute book has a role and a purpose: it is a purpose distinct from a party conference speech or a party election broadcast.”
Former Supreme Court justices, including Lord Hope and Lord Brown, lined up to criticise the bill. Their former colleague, Lord Walker, said the Law Commission had told him there had not been any informal consultations.
However, an amendment to delete Clause 2 of the Bill was overwhelmingly rejected by 222 votes to 77. Labour peers backed an amendment to remove Clause 3, but the margin was still comfortably in favour of the bill – 238 votes to 190.
An amendment to remove Clause 4 was withdrawn after Lord Faulks successfully tabled a government amendment. This deleted the final words of the clause so the person “acting heroically” to help someone would not have to be doing so “without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests”.
Lord Faulks said the government’s decision to table the amendment followed a meeting with the St John Ambulance and British Red Cross.
“This will put beyond doubt that the clause applies to anybody who intervenes in an emergency to help somebody in danger, regardless of whether they acted entirely spontaneously or weighed up the risks before intervening,” Lord Faulks said.
“What is more, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, as leading first aid organisations reaching hundreds of thousands of people a year, have said that if the amendment is agreed they will use the opportunity to encourage more people to come forward to act in emergencies.”
John Spencer, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) warned: “The bill aims to protect would-be heroes and volunteers from being sued for injuries which occur when they try to help other people, but the law already takes good intentions into account.
“By bowing to myths and misunderstandings, there is a real danger that the bill could lead people to believe they are impervious to the law if they injure someone through their own recklessness while being ‘heroic’.
“So while being a waste of time is bad enough, this move by the government actually encourages have-a-go heroes to play Superman while the injured victims suffer the consequences”.
A bid by Lord Lloyd, a former law lord, to deny the bill a second reading early last month failed after Labour peers abstained.