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Bereaved families treated like second-class citizens, says MP

'Ridiculous' law on psychiatric harm needs to be made fit for purpose

13 October 2015

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The law on damages for bereaved people and victims of psychiatric harm is treating some families like second-class citizens, a Labour backbench MP has claimed.

'Some aspects of the law affecting people who have been injured or bereaved through no fault of their own are out of date and unjust, and my Bill aims to address this,' said Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald, who is introducing the Negligence and Damages Bill.

'The law in England and Wales treats bereaved families like second-class citizens. Most people agree there is a fairer and more sensible way to do things, and this is what my Bill aims to do. It's about justice and making the law fit for purpose.'

The proposed legislation aims to address long-standing concerns about how people are treated when they suffer psychological illness after the needless death or serious injury of their loved ones.

The Bill will extend the statutory list of relationships in which it is assumed there is a close tie of love and affection. It will also extend the list of family members who should be eligible for bereavement damages to include, among others, civil partners and children over the age of 18.

The current law emerged after the Hillsborough disaster 26 years ago, and has remained unchanged ever since, despite repeated calls for change from lawyers.

'People can suffer serious, debilitating mental illness after the death or injury of a loved one and yet the law still makes them jump through very high hoops to obtain any kind of redress,' remarked the Labour politician who was a member of the Justice Select Committee until March 2015.

The Bill has received support from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) and its president, Jonathan Wheeler, who said the legal assumption that some family members are not deemed to have a close enough relationship was 'ridiculous'.

'In England and Wales the laws which are supposed to help both bereaved families and people suffering from psychiatric harm are woefully inflexible,' said the Bolt Burdon Kemp solicitor.

'The relatives of people who are killed wrongfully can make a claim for statutory bereavement damages of just £12,980. Such a low sum means that in England and Wales it is actually cheaper to kill someone than it is to maim them.'

Wheeler also highlighted the unfairness of the law that only spouses and parents of children under 18 years-old are eligible to receive bereavement damages.

'In reality, the tragic loss of a child does not diminish once the child has passed his or her 18th birthday,' he added.

'In Scotland the system is much fairer as each case is judged on its own merits. Bereavement damages in the UK are a lottery based on where the death happens.'

Section 1(4) of the Damages (Scotland) Act 1976 provides for no statutory limit for bereavement awards to family members in fatal claims in Scotland.

Further, claimants pursuing such claims have a right to a jury trial, meaning there has often been a difference between the level of damages awarded by a judge over a jury.

'People claiming compensation simply want to put their lives back on track,' explained Wheeler. 'These events should never happen in the first place. But when they do happen they should be treated with fairness and understanding by the justice system.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD

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