Psychiatric injury law is out of date and in need of change. People who suffer after witnessing distressing events are subjected to a “harsh and outdated” system of redress, say lawyers.
“The physiological impact for witnesses of distressing events can wreak havoc on their lives, sometimes permanently,” explained Matthew Stockwell, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) which has asked the Law Commission to examine the law on psychiatric injury for witnesses, or ‘secondary victims’.
“The law is currently very rigid and denies some victims the ability to bring a case for compensation to help put their lives back on track,” Matthew went on. “Psychiatric injury doesn’t follow any rules on who will suffer or how, it just doesn’t work that way. The law surrounding it should be more flexible to reflect that”.
Also, only the spouse or fiancé, parents, and children, of the original victim are presumed to have the ‘close tie of love and affection’ required to be eligible to bring a case.
“Brothers, sisters, and unmarried partners, for example, have to prove their relationship, which could involve jumping through a lot of high hoops at a difficult time,” said Matthew.
The law was set out in the case following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster (Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992]), which ruled that the victims’ family members, who suffered psychiatric injuries after witnessing the tragedy unfold on television or watching it unfold from another area of the stadium, could not pursue compensation. Claimants had to have been present at the scene and witnessed the event directly.
“In the 20-plus years since the law on psychiatric injury of secondary witnesses was established, technology and the way we interact with each other has experienced a revolution. The law has remained far too strict,” said Matthew.
“We can talk to our families on the other side of the world as if they are in the same room, through tools such as Skype and Facetime. Witnessing a tragedy happen to a loved one through a webcam or while on a video call, for example, is very possible.

“Psychiatric injury can be just as serious as the physical ones and this must be remembered in a proper review and overhaul of the system, to help victims get the help they need,” he added.

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