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Do we need a reform of the law on psychiatric injury?

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers ("APIL") has described the current law on psychiatric injury claims as "old-fashioned, inflexible and unfair".  

Matthew Stockwell, President of APIL, speaking at a reception in the Commons on 4 March 2014 said that there had never been a better time to look at reforming this part of the law.

Next month is the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The disaster resulted  in over 700 casualties who were physically injured and/or suffered psychological damage. The case of Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992], brought by the victims of that disaster and their relatives, established the basis upon which a person can make a claim for compensation as a result of a psychiatric injury even though they were not physically injured in the event.

For these victims to succeed in a claim for psychiatric harm they must meet all of the following criteria, under the Alcock Four Stage Test :

1. Have a close tie of love and affection to a primary victim (i.e. someone who was physically injured);
2. To have witnessed the event with their own unaided senses (not on TV);
3. Have had "proximity" to the event or its immediate aftermath; and
4. Suffer psychiatric injury by a shocking event.

Stockwell challenges these criteria, pointing out that in the last 25 years, attitudes towards psychiatric injury had "fundamentally changed" and people were no longer expected to show a "stiff upper lip".

For example, "close ties" are only assumed to exist between spouses, fiancés, parents and children, while closeness in other relationships has to be proven. Stockwell said "This is often extremely distressing and intrusive," and "the law does not currently recognise closeness between brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, civil partners or friends."

Stockwell also called for the current requirement for an event to need to be 'shocking', to be replaced by the word 'distressing'.

Furthermore, he proposed that the requirement that a person suffering the psychiatric injury has experienced the event through their 'unaided senses', should be abandoned. Stockwell said "I don't think we're asking too much," and "we're not proposing that anyone who hears about the death or injury of a loved one should be able to waltz into Court and claim compensation - absolutely not."Stockwell also noted that "It will still be necessary, in every case, to prove a genuine psychiatric injury as the result of negligence.  All the usual rigour, all the usual checks and balances of the law, will still apply."

The debate will go on, however if any proposed changes are implemented, it will require an Act of Parliament or a significant mind shift in the Supreme Court.  People who had previously not qualified the claim under the Alcock Four Stage Test may now be able to make a claim for compensation as a result of psychiatric injury.  

For more information please contact Ashfords Personal Injury Team here.

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