Justice minister Shailesh Vara has assured MPs that the government’s heroism bill will not give immunity from civil liability for those causing injury through negligence.
Vara came under repeated attack from both Conservative and Labour MPs yesterday during the third reading of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Public Bill in the commons.
The legislation seeks to change the court’s attitude to deciding liability for lifesavers, voluntary groups and responsible business owners. It amends the wording of current laws so the court ‘must’ – rather than ‘may’ – have regard to whether the alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred when the person was acting ‘for the benefit of society’.
Vara was urged to define what is meant by the phrase ‘a generally responsible approach’ in deciding liability.
He said: ‘The bill will help all those hard-working individuals, organisations and small businesses who do the right thing and adopt a responsible approach towards the safety of others in the course of an activity by ensuring that that is taken into account by the court in the event of a claim.
‘It will help to discourage speculative and opportunistic claims, and give confidence to responsible employers—and others—to resist them.’
Vara acknowledged that the legislation has been criticised by the legal profession but added that ‘this is not a bill aimed at pleasing lawyers’.
The minister stressed that judges will still have discretion to decide the merits of cases and said it was wrong to give hypothetical examples of how the bill would work in practice.
He did, however, outline a case in which the Cheshire fire service had been subject to legal action by someone who tripped over a hose – albeit Vara did not know if the case was successful.
‘I do not know the outcome, but the fact that those people took legal action in the first place is the issue,’ he added.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the bill will ‘change little’ and was the wrong priority for the Ministry of Justice.
‘He got his favourable media hit, and the rest is irrelevant,’ said Khan. ‘This treats the House with utter disrespect. Precious legislative time that could have gone on meaningful measures to change people’s lives for the better has been wasted.’
The bill came under particularly unfavourable scrutiny from former solicitor general Sir Edward Garnier QC (pictured), a Conservative MP.
He added: ‘Between now and the bill’s arrival in the other place, I urge ministers and the very bright lawyers and policy assistants at the MoJ to have another think about it. At the moment, it is a silly bill.’