A new Private Members’ Bill published this week calls for greater fairness for bereaved people and victims of psychiatric harm, supported by Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL).

The Bill, entitled The Negligence and Damages Bill, seeks to reform the law in England and Wales for bereaved families and victims of psychiatric illness.

Currently, where a person is killed as a result of negligence in England and Wales, a very narrow class of relatives may be entitled to claim a statutory bereavement award of £12,980. The class is limited to:

  • a surviving spouse or civil partner
  • the parents of a minor where the parents are married
  • the mother of a minor where the parents are unmarried.

This means that certain key groups such as parents who lose an adult child due to negligence, the father of a child born to unmarried parents, and cohabitees are excluded from the award. This Bill seeks to extend the list of family members who should be eligible for bereavement damages.

The existing compensation figure is also subject to criticism for being very low. For instance, Jonathan Wheeler of APIL has highlighted that such a low sum means that it costs less for a defendant to kill a person than it is to maim them whereas in Scotland the system is much fairer as each case is judged on its own merits. 

The Bill also addresses concerns about how people are treated when they suffer psychological illness after being involved at the time with the death or serious injury of their loved ones due to negligence. Mr Wheeler of APIL explained: “People whose loved ones are wrongfully killed or injured and who then go on to suffer psychiatric damage as a result cannot claim compensation unless they have what is deemed to be a “close tie of love and affection” to the person harmed or killed in the event. For example, brothers and sisters aren’t assumed to have a close enough relationship which is, frankly, ridiculous”.

The law also currently only allows a narrow class of people to make a claim for psychiatric injury where they have witnessed the negligent events, or the immediate aftermath of the events involved. This Bill seeks to change the law by extending the statutory list of relationships in which it is assumed there is a “close tie of love and affection” entitling the person in principle to bring a claim, although there is no proposal to amend the other stringent tests applicable which limit the circumstances in which a claim can be made by a secondary victim.

Lucie Prothero, senior associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches who specialises in fatal accident and psychiatric claims for secondary victims (also known as “nervous shock” claims) , said: “We are delighted that Mr McDonald and APIL are taking up this cause with the new Bill. We deal regularly with enquiries and claims on behalf of people who have lost loved ones due to negligence. We always find it extremely hard to explain to longstanding unmarried cohabitees or parents of adult children who have died that they cannot even qualify for the statutory paltry bereavement award of £12,980.

“The law in England and Wales is long overdue for reform for both the class of people who are able to claim the bereavement award and the figure at which it is set. Although no sum can compensate for the death of a loved one, the current exclusions and small value for loss of a life rub salt in the wounds of those bereaved . It also restricts their access to justice because the cost of pursuing those claims are disproportionate to any likely compensation.”