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Psychiatric Injury for Secondary Victims

George Howarth MP has tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons calling on the Government to reform the law with respect to secondary victims who suffer psychiatric injury.  

As the reader may be aware, this year is the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster but you may not know that the law on psychiatric injury was enshrined after this disaster. 

The current law is archaic, inflexible and unfair, and the not-for-profit Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, of which I am a member, is therefore calling for reform. People who suffer needless psychiatric harm after witnessing the death or injury of a loved one should be entitled to claim compensation and should not be required to jump through unnecessary and unfair hoops to be able to do so. 

APIL’s proposals to change the law relate to three issues; those who are eligible to make a claim for compensation; the type of event, or events, which lead to the injury; and the location of the person who witnesses the event which leads to the psychiatric injury.

The current law only assumes that there is a ‘close tie of love and affection’ between parents and child, spouses, and fiancés. A person who falls into one of these categories is allowed to bring a case for psychiatric harm without having to prove that close tie. Anyone else who wants to bring a claim, but who doesn’t fit into this category, has to prove a close tie exists, and this can be incredibly difficult and distressing. The list of those people who are already assumed to have a close tie of love and affection should therefore be extended, and should, for example, include grandparents and grandchild. 

In order to make a claim under the current law, the event which causes the injury must be ‘shocking’ in the sense that it makes a direct and immediate impact on the senses. Medical science, however, increasingly shows that people can develop psychiatric illnesses as a result of events which have taken place over a considerable period of time. The requirement that the event must be ‘shocking’ should be abandoned, and the event which leads to the psychiatric injury should instead be a ‘distressing event’ (or series of events).  

The law currently requires that the claimant has to be close in time and space to the incident and to have perceived the injury or death of a loved one through his own unaided senses. This is an arbitrary and harsh test which should be abandoned. Someone who has close ties to a person who has been injured or killed should not be denied compensation simply because he was not present at the scene of the distressing event.