SARAH - a pointless exercise?

The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (SARAH) recently had its second reading where it received a scathing response in the House of Lords. For those of you who have missed it, it is allegedly a Bill that has been drafted as a response to our expanding “compensation culture”. You may have read about it in the newspapers where the government has been trying to sell it as “the Hero’s bill”. Essentially, it is there to reassure the nation that they can intervene and potentially save a life without the fear of being sued.

In reality, what the Bill is actually saying is that the courts need to take into account the motivation behind a defendant’s actions in a personal injury claim. It does not absolve a potential hero from liability and it will not stop a claim against them. Whilst many of those in the House of Lords were quick to criticise the bill, Lord Pannick was positively brutal stating: ‘The Bill puts me in mind of what Basil Fawlty says to his wife Sybil in the celebrated TV programme Fawlty Towers: she should be a contestant on Mastermind, specialist subject, the bleedin’ obvious. The Bill is a statement of the legally obvious.’

What the Lord Chancellor (who is responsible for the introduction of the Bill) seems to have forgotten is that the role of a judge is to consider every aspect of a case, including the motivation behind a defendant’s actions. When deciding a case, there is no overriding incentive for a judge to rule in favour of one person over the other. They are entirely impartial and experienced enough to consider the merits of a claim without the need for a new Bill. If SARAH was in force tomorrow it would do nothing more than direct judges to do exactly the same thing that they have been doing throughout their careers.

When asked which previous cases would have been handled differently if the Bill had been in force, the Lord Chancellor was at a loss. He tried to defend the Bill stating “this is not just about what happens in the courts... The Bill is designed to send a powerful message”. Who is the message being sent to? What power is there in a message which tells everyone what they already know?

The purpose of drafting legislation is to make laws that are enforceable by the courts. This is a time consuming, expensive and pointless exercise. Mr Grayling may have had the best of intentions but if he wanted to send a message to the public would it not have been cheaper and more effective to prepare a press release or an advertising campaign?

The new Bill has come at a time when the legal sector is facing widespread cuts which have left vulnerable people unrepresented and courts understaffed or worse, closed. Mr Grayling’s insistence on wasting time and money for the sake of “sending a message” seems to highlight his lack of understanding of the real issues in the justice system today.

Unfortunately, despite what proved to be a very entertaining debate, it was agreed that ‘when it comes to seeking to defeat a Bill at Second Reading, the House is traditionally cautious’ and so the SARAH bill will live another day. Sybil Fawlty wins again.

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