The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act 2015 (SARAH Act 2015) received Royal Assent on 12 February 2015.
The SARAH Act applies when a court, considering a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty, is determining the steps that a person was required to take to discharge a duty of care. The Act sets out the following additional factors that the court "must" now consider, that is, whether:
- The alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred when the defendant was acting for the benefit of society or any of its members.
- The defendant demonstrated a predominately responsible approach towards protecting the safety or interests of others.
- The alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred when the defendant was acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger.
Why the need for the new legislation?
The changes have been designed to help volunteers, community groups, businesses and people who step in heroically to help in dangerous circumstances. It follows years of concern that people were being put off from doing simple good deeds for fear of legal action if something went wrong. It also is said by the government to be necessary to combat the so called 'Compensation Culture'.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:
"Not only have responsible small businesses been stifled by unnecessary insurance costs and the fear of being sued but volunteers have been deterred from taking part in socially beneficial activities and brave people have been put off from helping someone in trouble."
The Ministry of Justice claims the Act will “put the law more clearly on the side of employers who do the right thing to protect employees if something does go wrong through no fault of their own”. The measures “will also provide greater protection to small business owners who face challenges from irresponsible employees even if they have taken a responsible approach to safety training and procedures”.
Despite these claims there is nothing in the published Act that offers specific protection to small firms.
Arguably the SARAH Act brings nothing new to the minds of judges when considering if a party has acted negligently. There is long-established statute and case law governing such situations and, where there is employee contributory negligence, courts have discretion to adjust the award accordingly.
The Compensation Act 2006 confirms that a court can, when considering what is necessary to meet the standard of care, look at whether a requirement might prevent a desirable activity being carried out to any extent or discourage people from undertaking related functions.
The SARAH Act does little to expand on Section 1 of the Compensation Act; however, its key role is conceivably to introduce the requirement that the court "must" consider the defendant's actions, whereas the Compensation Act only requires that the court "may" consider those actions.
The scope of the Act and its Effect on Insurers
The SARAH Act is engaged in every case where breach of a duty of care in negligence, or breach of a statutory duty is in focus; not just in personal injury cases.
There are limits on how effective the Act is likely to be in practice.
The Act only has an impact once cases reach the civil courts. This will not necessarily deter claimants from bringing claims in the first place, after all, the common law principles of negligence have not changed. However, many cases do not make it to court, because it can be difficult to justify the time and costs incurred in pursuing a case to court. Will the threat of the application of the Act at trial have an impact on cases that do not reach trial?
The Act is welcomed by charitable organisations such as the British Red Cross and St Johns Ambulance because they hope that it will encourage more volunteers to come forward and help in dangerous or emergency situations without the fear of legal action if something goes wrong. However, it is arguable that the wording of the Act applies only to actions beyond the normal call of duty, and so will not encompass the acts and omissions of emergency services staff because they are required to act in accordance with their job descriptions. Furthermore, the Act may not encompass the acts and omissions of first aid volunteers as they are trained and expected to intervene.
It remains to be seen what effect the Act will have on claims involving negligence and whether the Act will visibly impact on the compensation culture.