Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's latest Bill has been widely panned. Photo: Getty
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Defining "acting heroically" in legal terms: Chris Grayling's Heroism Bill is a waste of time

The government has a patchy record with criminal justice bills – and the latest is no exception. The Social Action, Responsibility & Heroism Bill is attacked as a “vacuous waste of time” by the Labour party.

It was all change in the engine room at the Ministry of Justice last week, as junior ministers came and went but Captain Chris Grayling stayed on the bridge and continues steering manfully for the rocks.

His latest Justice Bill has its second reading today in the Commons. But those looking for answers to the many problems our criminal and civil justice systems face will not find them in the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill.

A cursory glance at the legal blogs and coverage shows that this Bill has been almost universally panned. Even the website ConservativeHome found space to criticise it. Last week it was slammed by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers as potentially putting "vulnerable people at risk".

Is this indeed the case? The government admits in its "fact sheet" on the Bill that it: “would not change the overarching legal framework”. The Lord Chancellor himself calls it "a signpost from parliament to the courts".

There are only three short operative clauses to this Bill. They instruct a court considering negligence or statutory duty claims to "have regard to" whether a defendant was acting for the benefit of society, demonstrating a generally responsible approach or acting heroically.

Grayling claims the Bill will not fetter judicial discretion but that is exactly what it sets out to do. Fortunately, the Bill is so poorly drafted that it will probably fail in that aim. But it will undoubtedly spark quantities of satellite litigation as the parties seek to define "benefit of society", "a generally responsible approach" and "acting heroically".

It is also unnecessary. If it has a purpose, that was fulfilled by Section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006 which dealt with this issue with more precise language than this Bill while retaining judicial discretion. 

Let’s look at the issues the Lord Chancellor wishes to address in the Bill.

Firstly, "the person who holds back from sweeping snow off the pavement outside their house because they are afraid that someone will then slip on the ice and sue them".

There is no evidence that this is a problem. Indeed the government’s own website DirectGov.uk, used to host a section debunking the snow and ice myth. It said: Don’t believe the myths – it's unlikely you'll be sued or held legally responsible for any injuries if you have cleared the path carefully.”

Curiously this page was recently archived. 

What signal does this clause send? Parents may fear that if their child is injured on a school trip no one will be held liable as the school was acting altruistically. They may decide not to send their child on the trip.  

How does that help the school, the parent or the child?

And what about the "everyday heroes" this Bill purports to assist?

If this is intended to give the green light to anyone – trained emergency service worker or public spirited bystander –to act with less care and a feeling of impunity then it could prove dangerous. The emergency services have vast experience in how and when to intervene, so why legislate and add more confusion?

The Bill’s most contentious aim is to weaken employees’ rights in the workplace. As Grayling told the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, if "somebody has an accident at work, it’s entirely their own fault, they have got a perfectly responsible employer who has the normal health and safety procedures in place but that person does something dumb, hurts themselves and sues the employer anyway."

Of course, there would be no or a greatly reduced liability for the employer in this situation under the current law. This is another straw man.  

So, is this Bill intended as a further attack on the workers’ and trade union rights, an attempt to give the whip hand to employers, and to feather bed insurers?  No surprise there. It will likely fail in that intention also, because the law on negligence remains unaltered and the courts are now used to Grayling's legislation as press release style.

But it gives an insight into the mentality of a government that asked to judge the stronger party in workplace injury claims (down by half in the last ten years by the way) sees the employer, insured and in control of the accident site, as needing protection from the injured employee unable to earn their salary and plucking up the courage to sue their boss.

This Bill is a waste of parliamentary time, but its intention is to frustrate further the fair operation of our courts and legal system.


Andy Slaughter is shadow justice minister and Labour MP for Hammersmith

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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