Businesses and volunteers are to be given new legal defences against being sued for negligence in a move designed to protect people working for the benefit of society under measures to be brought forward in the final year of the coalition government.
The proposed legislation, announced by the justice secretary Chris Grayling on Monday, and formally declared in the Queen’s Speech today, will provide a legal framework forcing judges to consider three factors when deciding whether a person or organisation behaved negligently in compensation cases: whether they were doing something “for the benefit of society”; if they had been acting in a “generally responsible way”; and if they were “acting in emergency”.
Further measures outlined at the Queen’s state opening of parliament today include a legal requirement for the government to set and report on a deregulation target for each parliament.
Meanwhile, the Deregulation Bill, which contains controversial provisions to exempt some self employed from the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, is also being carried over from the last parliamentary term.
The aim of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, as it will be known, is to “ensure that the red tape that affects small businesses is frequently reviewed to ensure regulations are either cut or remain effective, and to place that requirement into law”.
The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (SARAH), which will be introduced in the course of the next parliament, is designed to provide a degree of protection for people who volunteer and carry out good deeds to make sure potential liability does not put them off from participating.
The bill would not prohibit cases from being brought to ensure people can still seek justice if they have fallen victim to an accident caused by genuine negligence.
But the TUC and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have said that the risk of civil action being taken against people or companies in such circumstances is low, though the NCVO suggested concern, conversely, was high.
Writing for the grassroots Conservative party members’ blog Conservative Home, Grayling said he first come up with the bill when he was a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for health and safety.
“All too often people who are doing the right thing in our society feel constrained by the fear that they are the ones who will end up facing a lawsuit for negligence,” he wrote.
“Take the responsible employer who puts in place proper training for staff, who has sensible safety procedures, and tries to do the right thing. And then someone injures themselves doing something stupid or something that no reasonable person would ever have expected to be a risk. Common sense says that the law should not simply penalise the employer for what has gone wrong.
“Or the person who holds back from sweeping the snow off the pavement outside their house because they are afraid that someone will then slip on the ice and sue them.
“The best way to describe the proposed bill is that it will serve as a signpost from parliament to the courts. It will set out very simple protections for those people who act in the interests of society, responsibly or heroically. It will say to the courts that we want their decisions clearly to take into account whether people have been trying to do the right thing or not."
Responding to Grayling’s announcement, Justin Davis Smith, executive director for volunteering and development at the NCVO, said: “We continue to get a lot of calls from charities and individual volunteers about risk and liability. The chances of any action being taken against them are very low but there is clearly a great concern about risk. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week, anything that can be done to break down barriers to people getting involved in their communities is very welcome.
“We’re in touch with the Ministry of Justice and will feed in NCVO members’ experiences and concerns. We look forward to seeing the legislation in place and making the spirit of its message clear to all.”
The TUC said it feared the bill could let employers whose workers have been put in a dangerous situation “off the safety hook”.
The trade union body’s general secretary, Francis O’Grady, said: “Safety laws are not needless ‘red tape’, nor are they part of the ‘jobsworth culture’. They provide valuable protection for the UK’s 30m workers. Any attempt to lessen employer responsibility for workplace safety could put employees at risk and make it harder for them to claim compensation if they are injured at work.
“There is no evidence that current safety laws prevent anyone from acting heroically when someone’s life is threatened, but where workers are being put into dangerous situations they must be protected.”
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