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Ridiculed heroism bill set to become law

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The much-mocked bill designed to bring ‘common sense’ to the process of claiming compensation is set to receive royal assent.


On 2 February MPs agreed to small changes that amended the wording of two clauses of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism (SARAH) Bill made in the course of over three months of debate in the House of Lords.

The four-clause bill, which is intended to ensure courts consider the context of any alleged negligence when claims are brought, has faced severe criticism from both sides of the House. Lord Pannick said the bill was unnecessary as judges are already obliged to consider context is such circumstances under the terms of the Compensation Act 2006.

The Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Chris Grayling, who introduced the bill to the House of Commons, said it was intended to reassure small business owners and volunteers that the law was on their side and provide them with a defence against spurious compensation claims.

The drafting of the bill received close scrutiny, with peers arguing that the phrasing was ambiguous in places. Clause 3, which stipulated that courts must consider whether the defendant had a “generally responsible approach” to safety, was open to interpretation, it was argued. “Generally” was subsequently changed in the Lords to “predominantly”, which was agreed to by MPs.

A series of amendments in the House of Lords to strike out whole clauses of the bill were ultimately unsuccessful.

Following the changes to the wording, it received the backing of the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance, according to Grayling.

Responding to concern that the bill would weaken workers’ rights by allowing irresponsible employers to evade responsibility, Grayling said: “I want to make it clear that the bill will not stop irresponsible employers from being found negligent when the circumstances of the case warrant it or stop the courts considering all relevant factors when reaching a decision on the claim.

“It is simply about ensuring that the courts take a common-sense approach to considering claims brought against hard-working owners of small businesses and others by considering their overall approach to safety in the course of the activity in which an accident occurred.”

But Andy Slaughter, the opposition justice spokesman, said: “We are all sick of the bill. I suspect the Lord Chancellor is sick of the bill. Like many of his projects, it began as an exercise in public relations and a nod towards the tabloids, and a coded attack on the rights of the individual to find redress through the law.

“Both the ridicule and the incredulity with which it has been met on both sides of both Houses, and from almost every expert commentator, has exposed its pointlessness and fragility.”

During its third reading in the upper house, the crossbench peer and lawyer Lord Pannick poured scorn on the bill, saying that in his 40 years of studying law he could not remember “a more pointless, indeed fatuous, piece of legislation than clause 2 of this bill, with the possible exception of clauses 3 and 4 of this bill”.

However, when Lord Hunt of Wirral, the Conservative peer, spoke on the bill in the same debate, he said he had just returned from a trip to Antarctica and that young people would benefit from taking risks in much the same manner that he had, which the SARAH bill would help facilitate.

“This bill will do much to further the opportunities, particularly for younger people, to take the sort of risks that perhaps at my age I should never even have dreamt of, such as traversing the crevasses that I did over the weekend. I think that it did me a lot of good and will do them a lot of good, too.”

 

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