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Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (Remedial) Order 2020

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (Remedial) Order 2020.

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, is unable to be here so I am taking this order through on his behalf.

This draft order seeks to rectify an incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights identified by the Court of Appeal in the 2017 case of Jacqueline Smith v Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and others. This relates to limits on the categories of person eligible to receive an award of bereavement damages under Section 1A of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, which excludes a person who has cohabited with the deceased person for a period of at least two years immediately prior to the death.

The draft order was laid in Parliament on 12 February 2020 and was approved by the House of Commons on 15 June, so this debate represents the final stage in the parliamentary process, after which it will become law. As noble Lords will be aware, the terms of the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to remedial orders require the order to be strictly focused on rectifying the incompatibility that has been identified; it cannot extend to addressing wider issues.

The bereavement damages award is set by the Lord Chancellor and is a fixed payment in acknowledgment of the grief caused by a wrongful death. The level of the award is currently £15,120, having recently been increased in line with inflation. The award is currently available to a limited number of people, including the wife, husband or civil partner of the deceased person.

Unlike civil damages generally, which are intended to compensate fully for the loss suffered, the bereavement damages award is, and was only ever intended to be, a token award payable to a limited category of people. When the award was first introduced in the Administration of Justice Act 1982, it was acknowledged by Parliament that it is impossible to quantify or provide adequate financial compensation for the grief felt at the loss of a loved one. Similarly, the limits on the categories of people able to claim are not intended to imply that people outside those groups would not be severely emotionally affected by the death in question.

The draft remedial order provides that a claimant who cohabited with the deceased person for a period of at least two years immediately prior to the death will be eligible to receive the bereavement damages award. In view of the fact that this is a fixed, token award, it is desirable for the system governing it to be as simple and straightforward as possible to avoid unnecessary complexity that would add to the cost of litigation and the potential for disputes.

In that context, we consider that it is reasonable to set a limit that objectively evidences a relationship of permanence and commitment and avoids the need for intrusive inquiries into the quality and durability of the relationship in individual cases. We believe that two years is an appropriate qualifying period. This period is already applied under Section 1 of the 1976 Act in relation to claims by cohabitants for dependency damages, and unnecessary complexity would arise in a claim involving both types of damages if different definitions were used.

In the very rare instances in which both a qualifying cohabitant and a spouse will be eligible—that is, in circumstances where the deceased was still married and not yet divorced or separated but had been in a cohabiting relationship for at least two years—the draft order provides for the award to be divided equally between the two eligible claimants. We consider that this is the fairest approach to adopt, given that it is desirable to avoid the potential for intrusive inquiries into the quality and durability of an eligible relationship or, in this particular situation, into the respective merits of the two claimants.

I am grateful to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for its scrutiny of this draft order. A remedial order is seldom used to correct incompatibilities in primary legislation with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is therefore right that each order be scrutinised carefully both to ensure compliance with the procedure laid down in the Human Rights Act 1998 and to ensure that the incompatibilities found by the courts are addressed.

The Government welcome the committee’s recommendation that Parliament approves the order and I hope that my comments have addressed the main points on which it has expressed concern in relation to the contents of the draft order. It remains our position that some of the issues raised by the committee go beyond the Court of Appeal’s ruling on incompatibility and are therefore beyond the scope of the order. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her succinct explanation. I wish to make three brief points about this order, which I trust she might respond to. First, the order makes no provision for couples who may have been together—what their friends call “an item”—although not actually living together under one roof for completely understandable and legitimate reasons. For instance, they may have clashing work commitments or obligations as carers for relatives which rule out sharing a home in the conventional sense.

Secondly, the order excludes cohabitees who have lived together for less than two years. It treats such people like employees who qualify for protection against unfair dismissal only after two years’ service. The claim in paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum that two years together

“objectively evidences a relationship of permanence and commitment”

beggars belief. Where, I wonder, is this evidence, and what world are Ministers living in? Setting such a two-year test for a bereavement award is arbitrary. Let us not add insult to injury by pretending otherwise.

Finally, there is the question of the value of a lost life. The order applies to England and Wales and provides for the award of bereavement damages now of £15,120 for cases relating to deaths on or after 1 May 2020. In Scotland there is no statutory limit and figures of up to £140,000 have been awarded. We are back in the postcode-lottery game, but the Government rejected the recommendation of the House of Commons Human Rights Committee in May 2020 for a review of the bereavement damages scheme. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed these three specific issues.

My Lords, I suppose I started off my professional career as a solicitor in the era of Lord Campbell’s Act of 1846 which contained no element in awards of damages equivalent to the Scottish solatium. The Scottish approach always recognised the grief that a death causes, exacerbated by the negligent act of an institution or an individual.

When the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 came into force, I was involved in personal injury litigation for both sides—that is, individual claimants and insurance companies. I certainly thought at the time that a lump sum by way of a bereavement award could never be an adequate or just measurement of grief. I have always been attracted to the Scottish system whereby this aspect of compensation is considered on a case-by-case basis. It is a question of principle. Indeed, in the field of criminal injuries compensation, the move from common law damages to a tariff system, effectively awarding lump sums for injuries regardless of individual circumstances, caused me to resign from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in the early 1990s.

It is in that context, therefore, that I must regard this remedial order as a small step in the right direction but no more. I concur completely with the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ excellent report that many other issues need further consideration. Since this particular case was concerned with the status of the claimant, the award of a lump sum for bereavement was not in issue and the court did not decide that a lump sum was incompatible with the convention. To change the system would therefore require primary legislation, as the Joint Committee and the noble Baroness in her introduction recognised.

In assessing pain and suffering as an element in an award for personal injury, the court is concerned with many factors, for example the extent and duration of the pain, the time taken for recovery, any permanent effect, previous state of health, age and domestic circumstances —a plethora of issues. All these are variable and are considered by a judge against guidelines that judges as a body have laid down and published. However, grief is a form of suffering and will vary from individual to individual. For example, the grief of a spouse in a happy and long-lasting marriage must surely be more intense than for a spouse where a marriage of short duration is on the brink of a divorce. It is not beyond the wit of a judge to recognise these differences.

The consequences of the lump sum approach to a bereavement award may be dramatic. For example, suppose two people are involved in an accident caused by the negligence of a third party, and one is killed and the other injured. The spouse of the deceased would receive a lump sum bereavement award regardless of circumstances while the injured person would receive as compensation for pain and suffering a sum carefully calculated with reference to the personal circumstances of that injured individual. The present lump sum system surely raises in the mind of the widow that the state values the life of her husband at a derisory sum. If she cannot substantiate a dependency award, so that is all she receives from the negligent defendant or his insurance company, that will seem all the more unjust.

While this issue is beyond the scope of this remedial order, it does raise the question of equal division of the lump sum between a spouse and a cohabitee, as the noble Baroness pointed out. The Government say in their Explanatory Memorandum that they wish to avoid “intrusive inquiries” into

“the respective merits of two eligible claimants.”

I cannot imagine a more likely source of conflict and bitterness on both sides than an equal division between a wife of many years standing and a cohabitee of just two years. Would such a conflict really be in the public interest?

APIL—the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers—has produced a useful briefing on this issue, referring to its Scottish experience where, as I have already said, the system is different. I certainly go along with the proposals that it makes. There is a need for a wider debate on awards in fatal accidents cases and I hope that it will take place.

My Lords, I have to declare a personal interest because I have cohabited with somebody for more than 20 years, but I hope never to be eligible to claim this award. I do my best in this House to say “Well done” to the Government when I think they have got something right. It does not happen very often, but when I see something is improving legislation, then I say “Congratulations”, but this statutory instrument is tiny, the bare minimum to address the human rights breach which was identified by the Court of Appeal in the case of Smith. Worse still is the fact that it has taken the Government three whole years to bring these changes to Parliament. That is a three-year gap in which bereaved couples facing a discriminatory system have been left without compensation following the death of their loved ones.

The simple truth is that the Fatal Accidents Act is not fit for the 21st century. It became law more than 40 years ago in 1976, which was a different era of relationships and family values. Today’s remedial order is nothing but a sticking plaster to cover one issue raised by the courts. The Act still refers to and makes a distinction between legitimate and “illegitimate” children. Such wording was probably all right in the 1970s, but even the most senior politicians might be so-called illegitimate children. Nobody mentions that anymore because it is just not relevant. It is the same with the issue we are dealing with today. Statutes should not enforce archaic and, frankly, offensive language and the Government have to amend this. It is true that it needs primary legislation. When we have a quiet spell next year, I hope the Government will bring something back to fix this messy situation.

While I am talking about that, the word “accidents” is no longer valid when we talk about car crashes or traffic incidents. The Metropolitan Police does not use the word “accident” anymore. The whole road safety world abhors it because “accident” presupposes the cause of a collision. It presupposes that it was, “Oops! I shouldn’t have done than”, but there is almost always a real cause, whether it is drugs, drink or inattention. There is a cause, so the word “accident” has to go.

Other issues persist. Why do there have to be two years of cohabitation? What happens if somebody has lived with another person for 729 days, one day short of the two years? A relationship in which people have lived separately for 20 years is just as valuable, and more so, than a relationship in which people have lived together for two years. The Government are saying that a 20-year relationship lived apart is worth £0 on death. As other noble Lords have said, financial compensation is always going to be a crude measure for bereavement and will never come anywhere close to solving the hurt and healing the wounds. This order will ensure that a great many deserving people will get absolutely nothing.

The noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Thomas, have suggested that we go forward with the idea recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and supported by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers: the Government could open a public consultation on how to reform this clunky and flawed area of law. They could consult on whether something like the Scottish system of allowing courts the discretion to determine who should receive how much would work. Will the Minister take this away and raise it with her department?

My Lords, the next speaker would have been the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, but he has not been able to join the debate, so I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

I thank the Minister for introducing this with such clarity and skill. I welcome the change that the remedial order makes, which means that non-married and non-civil partnership couples benefit from the entitlement to bereavement damages if one of them is tragically killed. I also very much echo the need for full-scale reform of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 which, for the reasons given by earlier speakers, is an archaic piece of legislation and can be very hurtful.

I wish to focus on this particular remedial order. I suggest that there are three things that it could have covered, so I wish to ask the Minister why it does not cover those things and if she can make inquiries to see whether an additional remedial order could be introduced to cover these matters.

The first matter was mentioned by earlier speakers and concerns the two-year period. When somebody enters into a civil partnership or a marriage, they become entitled immediately to the damages that the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 gives, yet if you co-habit with somebody, you do not get that entitlement. I see the issues that might arise in relation to proof, but why was it not possible to say that after two years it is automatic and prior to two years the position has to be proved to the satisfaction of the defendant or, if they do not agree, to a court? The Joint Committee on Human Rights referred to the example of Amelia, who had lived with her partner Jordan for 18 months when he was killed in a car crash. She was 29 weeks pregnant at the time of his death; she was not entitled to bereavement damages and would not be under this change. Can this not be changed? What is the basis for it?

The second matter concerns shared damages. There could be the most acrimonious divorce of all time going on when a partner who has been in another relationship for a long time—as well as the person with whom he or she is engaged in that divorce—is killed, and yet the bereavement damages are shared. The purpose of bereavement damages is to compensate people for the grief that they suffer. Why have the Government chosen this route rather than a different one? Again, that could have been dealt with by this order.

The third issue is the inequity of a father who loses a child and is not married to their mother not being entitled to any bereavement damages. That is not good. It could have been remedied in the light of the Smith decision, because it is precisely this sort of inequity that the court identified in the course of the judgment.

Can the Minister indicate why those three things have not been covered and can she give us some indication that she might take them back to the Ministry of Justice? Perhaps an additional remedial order could be advanced because I think that everybody in the room, and probably in the country, would strongly support those three changes.

My Lords, I am grateful for this informed and constructive debate. A number of important points were made, which I would like to respond to. If I miss anything, I am more than happy to answer in writing; I will certainly check Hansard for that tomorrow.

First, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, spoke about the provision for couples that may be together but not sharing a home. We can go into lots of complexity on this. We have tried to make this as simple as possible for a number of reasons, mainly because complexity at the time of grief does not help.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, mentioned that no provision is made for couples who have lived together for less than two years. The period of two years already applies in other cases; certainly, under Section 1(3)(b) of the 1976 Act, the Court of Appeal did not question the validity of the two-year period. Again, if there are different definitions of eligibility at the time, unnecessary complexities can arise in a claim that involves both types of damages. We are trying to keep this as simple as possible because this money is a way of trying to help people through a very difficult period; it is not like other damages that would come through the courts.

Several noble Lords brought up the fact that the law is not the same in England as in Scotland. The civil and legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland are separate from those in England and Wales, so it is inevitable that the law has evolved differently in many respects. There is no inherent reason for the same approach to be taken in the different jurisdictions. The level of bereavement awards available in Scotland would lead to greater costs for not only insurance purposes but the NHS; again, it would also bring complexity into the proceedings for those people who are eligible to receive this money.

In England, there is a fixed-level award with clear eligibility criteria that avoids the need for detailed consideration of the evidence relating to degrees of grief and the potential for disputes which, I would argue, people do not need at such a point in their lives. Bereavement damages are, and always were only ever intended to be, a fixed token payment to a limited group of people. When the award was introduced into law, it was generally acknowledged that it is impossible to quantify or provide adequate financial compensation for the grief felt at the loss of a loved one. An award should not be regarded in any sense as a measure of the worth of the life that has been lost.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, also asked why this measure is not in primary legislation. I must admit that the current pressure on the legislative timetable means that there is little prospect of using primary legislation to make such a change. Moreover, we consider that the nature of the incompatibility contributes to where there are compelling reasons as required under Section 10(2) of the Human Rights Act 1998 for making the necessary legislative changes quickly and promptly, and this was the way to do that. However, it does of course mean that the order is narrow in scope.

We have talked about the Scottish system and primary legislation, which was brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, wanted to raise three issues. I have talked about the two-year period, but obviously I will take it back to the department and we will talk more about the interesting view that marriages and civil partnerships get the award from day one while there is a two-year period for cohabitees. Another point I will take back is the issue about a father and the loss of a child. I am not a lawyer but I do not think that that is covered within this remedial order.

That brings me to my final point. There has been a lot of talk from noble Lords about the Act itself, including how old it is and the fact that some of it uses inappropriate language, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I will take that back and make sure that I reflect noble Lords’ views in the department. As we well know, plenty of legislation is going through so I do not know what sort of response I will get, but I will make sure that noble Lords get an answer on that point. If I have not answered anything specifically, I will look in Hansard tomorrow.

In conclusion, I believe that this order accurately and effectively addresses the incompatibilities identified by the Court of Appeal, and I think noble Lords have agreed with that, particularly in relation to eligibility for bereavement damages. Subject to the Committee’s approval, it will be brought into effect as swiftly as possible following this debate. I welcome the support for the order from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and from noble Lords generally. I commend the draft order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.