Lord Chancellor's SARAH bill labelled as a 'gimmick'

Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor, has been heavily criticised in the House of Lords regarding his SARAH (Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism) Bill.

The SARAH Bill is aimed at tackling the UK's apparent "compensation culture" and offers protection to volunteers who may find themselves a victim of a negligence claim after acting in "the common good" - for instance offering first-aid assistance to a stranger. The Bill is also aimed at protecting small business owners from claims brought on by employees.

Speaking in the House of Lords, Justice minister Lord Faulks said:

"The Bill does not seek to confer immunity from civil liability on anyone whose actions fall within its scope. Those who are injured through negligence will continue to have access to legal redress and the Bill will not affect the court's ability to do justice in an individual case. The Bill ensures that the important matters it deals with are always considered by the courts, alongside all other pertinent factors as appropriate."

The Bill was also labelled as "useless" by Lord Lloyd of Berwick who described the Bill as: "...exceptional, not because it is of any importance but because it is of no importance at all. It is useless. It received negligible support in the Commons". Lord Lloyd went on to disparage the SARAH Bill in even more severe terms, saying:

"In truth, the Bill is unamendable. That was the view taken by the Law Society, and it was right. The Bill is so defective in all three operative clauses that the only feasible amendment is to take each of the three clauses in turn and remove it from the Bill. That was the view taken by the Labour Opposition. They moved an amendment to remove clause 3. They might as well have tabled amendments to remove the other two clauses. That is what I shall seek to do in committee if the Bill is given a second reading. If I succeed, we shall have an Act which will consist of nothing but its title. I wonder what legal historians will make of that."

The retired judge's argument centred on the opinion that the very limited changes within the Bill were already covered by the Compensation Act 2006 and so continuing to debate the Bill was ultimately a waste of parliamentary time.

Lord Lloyd wasn't the only member of the House to criticise the Bill. The Labour peer Lord Beecham went as far as to dismiss it as just "another Grayling gimmick" and suggested the Lord Chancellor should be spending his time on much more important issues:

"The prisons are in crisis - understaffed, overcrowded, with a rising incidence of self-harm and suicide. The judiciary complains of the difficulty, delay and cost caused by the increase in unrepresented litigants denied legal aid. The magistracy is greatly concerned about the decline of local justice, exacerbated by court closures and the increasing reliance on professional district judges. An untried and risky change in the probation service is under way, beset by the loss of experienced staff and reports of confusion and disorganisation. The Lord Chancellor's response is what can only be described as another Grayling gimmick."

"Two years ago, the Lord Chancellor celebrated his arrival in office by pitchforking unnecessary provisions into the then Crime and Courts Bill, supposedly to protect householders from prosecution if they used force to defend themselves or their property from intruders. It would be interesting to learn in just how many cases that measure has been invoked."

"This autumn, we have a five-clause, 20-line, one-page Bill - one of the shortest on record - designed to meet another non-existent problem: the unfair, or alternatively chilling, effect of the so-called compensation culture on those who might face a claim for compensation for negligence or breach of statutory duty while, 'acting for the benefit of society or any of its members'. From bash-a-burglar to hug-a-hero in two years."

There was even more criticism to come for the Lord Chancellor, with Lord Pannick's statement being particularly damning:

"I am not disappointed by this Bill. When I see that the Lord Chancellor is bringing forward a legislative proposal, I worry about which valuable aspect of our legal system he is going to damage: judicial review, human rights and legal aid have all come under the cosh. It is, then, a pleasant surprise that the Lord Chancellor should be using valuable legislative time on a Bill which is so anodyne and pointless that the only appropriate response is a shrug of the shoulders or the raising of an eyebrow.

"The Bill puts me in mind of what Basil Fawlty says of his wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers: 'She should be a contestant on Mastermind. Special subject: the bleedin' obvious'. The Bill is a statement of the legally obvious. I find it very difficult to believe that, if enacted, it is going to make any difference whatever to any case that comes before the courts."

Despite all of this criticism, though, the Lord Chancellor's Bill was passed after it won support from Conservative peers. The much maligned Bill will now be referred to committee stage for a second reading.

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