The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill - Not so heroic after all?

Article

23 July, 2014

The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 12 June 2014. Subject to its parliamentary progress, the Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent by the end of parliamentary session in early 2015.

The Bill is intended to protect "everyday heroes" and to support the Government's broader aims of encouraging and enabling people to volunteer and play a more active role in civil society. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling commented

" I don't want us to be a society where people feel that they can't do the right thing for fear of breaking regulations or becoming liable if something goes wrong. I don't want us to be a society where a responsible employer gets the blame for someone doing something stupid. I want a society where common sense is the order of the day, and I believe this measure will help us get there."

The Bill is also intended to reassure people, including employers, that if they demonstrate a generally responsible approach towards the safety of others during a particular activity, the courts will take this into account in the event they are sued for negligence or for certain breaches of statutory duty.

The Bill will not change the overarching legal framework, but it would direct the courts to consider three additional factors when deciding negligence cases:

  • If the person was doing something for the 'benefit of society' - to give weight to the fact people were doing a good deed like volunteering, running an event or trip, or helping out by clearing snow
  • If the person had acted in a 'generally responsible way' - to make sure the court will give consideration to the fact people may have taken care when organising an activity but an incident has occurred
  • If they were 'acting in an emergency' - if the person acted heroically and stepped into help someone in danger but something went wrong

The Bill does not prevent people bringing claims against people doing something for the 'benefit of society' nor does it tell the court what conclusion it should reach. It is hoped that the Bill will reduce insurance premiums by reducing the amounts insurance companies make in payouts, therefore allowing them to pass on savings to customers. However, in reality the government concedes that insurers and other defendants are only likely to gain from slightly reduced aggregate compensation payments. Whilst there may be a slight drop in the number of negligence cases brought to court as people are deterred from bringing a claim, it is not expected to be a substantial reduction. Where negligence claims are still brought, defendants and insurers will still incur the associated costs of defending such claims.

Whilst at first glance, defendants and insurers will welcome the Bill. It appears that many of the terms adopted in the Bill such as "for the benefit of society" have not been defined and will in the short term create more expense in satellite litigation.

Also, it is widely recognised that the Bill covers ground already dealt with in The Compensation Act 2006. Sadly, we must therefore conclude that the primary purpose of this Bill is a PR exercise on behalf of the Coalition government to address a perception that the Health and Safety culture is out of hand rather than an attempt to actually make a substantive change in the law and culture.

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