The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (dubbed by some the “Sarah Bill”) is being returned to the House of Commons, with amendments, following its final reading in the House of Lords on 6 January 2015. The much-maligned and exceptionally brief Bill seeks to introduce a requirement that courts deciding negligence and/or breach of statutory duty cases and in determining the standard of care give consideration to whether the activity or omission complained of was for the benefit of society, whether the person carrying out the activity demonstrated a “predominantly responsible approach” in protecting a person’s safety or other interests and whether (in emergency situations) the person intervened “heroically”.
Clause 4 in particular makes clear that the Bill is aimed predominantly at personal injury cases, although it will apply to non-personal injury cases. Critics of the Bill have suggested that it is largely being promoted by the Government to further protect employers and to appease the insurance industry.
Indeed, the Bill has been criticised on several grounds, mostly as being a mere publicity stunt by the Government but also for its vagueness.
The Sarah Bill is designed to afford greater protection to volunteers and employers who might otherwise be deterred from performing worthwhile deeds or organising events due to the risk of finding themselves on the end of a negligence claim.
The Bill survived an attempt in December 2014 at the Second Reading to remove most of its (four) clauses.
At the Third Reading, clause 3 (the social responsibility clause) was amended such that (in assessing the standard of care) the individual’s approach towards protecting the safety and interest of others must have been “predominantly”, rather “generally”, responsible. Clause 4 was also amended, removing the words “and without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests” to make clear that the clause applies equally to those cases where the person (sorry, hero(ine)) assess the risks to their own safety or other interests before intervening (as well as those where they did not assess the risks).
The amended Bill will be considered by the House of Commons on 2 February 2015.
If the Bill is passed, there are potentially difficult questions for the judges on the ground to answer. The Bill is somewhat unhelpfully brief and uses terms which are somewhat “foreign”.
The first difficulty is going to be determining when a defendant’s action was “for the benefit of society or any of its members.” The clause has a potentially enormous scope. Employers, particularly in the public sector, are likely going to try to fit themselves under this clause. But even if they do, you may well ask, so what? It is only a factor for the judge to consider and is by no means a defence. There is no indication of what weight, if any, judges will place on this factor.
Judges will also have to decide on what is meant under clause 3 by a “predominantly responsible approach” in protecting the safety or other interests of others. Again, the potential scope of the clause is vast. Will it apply, for instance, to all medical professionals? Will it apply to any attempt by an employer to introduce some health and safety measure? And what is the tipping point for an approach to be categorised as “predominantly responsible”? There is potential for a stream of cases on that issue alone, unless of course there is a judicial reluctance to engage with the clause and it goes the way of section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006.
It is also questionable how many cases will fall under clause 4 (the heroism clause). But for those that do, what do we mean by acting “heroically”? This is an entirely foreign legal concept and is open to a sliding scale of judicial interpretation. Are doctors acting “heroically” in emergency situations or will the clause only apply to the volunteer, have-a-go hero(ine) which the Government seems to have intended?
The Bill, as is stands, is brief, vague and uses terms to which the legal world is not accustomed. Although cases might throw up interesting questions on how to interpret the Bill, one has to wonder whether it will all be for nought. Chris Grayling MP himself has said, "The bill will not change this overarching legal framework, but it will direct the courts to consider particular factors when considering whether the defendant took reasonable care."
If judges do not engage with it or consideration of these particulars factors makes no material difference in practice, will defendants even bother to try to fit their cases under one of the clauses? Much like section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006, it will be judicial appetite that determines how effective the Bill’s clauses become. Given the criticism of the Bill in judicial circles, do not expect that appetite to be very strong.