A government bill to protect emergency services and responsible employers from the threat of litigation will become an object of derision, a Conservative former solicitor general told the House of Commons last night.
Labour condemned the measure - the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill - as the ‘most pathetic and embarrassing’ legislation since the formation of the Ministry of Justice.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling led the second reading of the bill, which he said would tackle ‘a culture of ambulance-chasing that all too often is about generating opportunities to earn fees, rather than doing the right thing’.
Labour dismissed the bill as based on ‘myth’ and said it would make no practical difference, although the party did not vote against it.
Tory MP Sir Edward Garnier QC (pictured), a former solicitor general, also spoke against the proposed legislation, comparing it to an early day motion rather than a government bill.
The content of the bill ‘has been within the common law for years and years’, he said, predicting that the measure would become ‘the subject of derision and confusion’.
The bill includes new guidance to judges on what to take into account when deciding on liability.
These include whether the person was acting ‘for the benefit of society’, whether they had demonstrated a generally responsible approach to protecting safety and whether they were ‘acting heroically by intervening in an emergency’.
Grayling said the effect of the legislation will be felt just as much outside court as inside, with ‘spurious’ claimants put off from bringing their cases.
He said: ‘[The bill] does not rewrite the law in detail or take away discretion from the courts, but it sends a signal to our judges and a signal to those thinking about trying it on—by bringing a case in the hope that it will not be defended—that the law is no longer on their side.
‘We live in a society that is increasingly litigious. In a country where things are safer than ever, where our workplaces are less risky than ever and where safety standards on our roads are higher than ever, that should not be happening.’
The justice secretary pointed to personal injury claims registered with the compensation recovery unit that showed a 30% increase in the past three years.
He said many volunteers are worried about their legal position when working in the community and ‘responsible’ employers fears the threat of litigation even when they have taken measures to protect safety.
‘Many of the claims that are represented by the 30% increase are doubtless valid, but at least part of that rise must be attributed to an increasingly litigious climate, spurred on, as I have said, by personal injury firms that are quick to cash in by advertising their services on television and radio, through unsolicited and often deeply irritating and upsetting telephone calls, through posters on buses, and through other marketing techniques.
‘We have focused firmly on ensuring that in future it will be much more difficult for spurious, speculative and opportunistic claims to succeed.’
Garnier said he agreed with Grayling about reducing the health and safety culture, dissuading ‘ambulance-chasing solicitors’ from encouraging people to sue, but that ‘I regret to say that I do not agree that this particular bill will achieve that’.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan described the bill as ‘pathetic and embarrassing’ and based on ‘no hard facts, no proof and no evidence’.
He added: ‘The secretary of state’s energies, and those of his officials, would have been better spent rebutting some of the myths about negligence and health and safety. That would have been a better way of tackling the fear of litigation, given that the likelihood of a negligence claim is pretty small.’
The bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, is likely to go to the House of Lords in the autumn and could become an act before the end of this parliament in 2015.