Graeme Garrett: Let’s not get hamstrung by ‘health and safety’

THERE is a widespread public misconception about health and safety, which is frequently given as the reason for some pretty strange decisions.

The obvious examples are well-known cases, such as local authorities who take down floral displays from lampposts in case they fall on someone’s head. We have not reached the stage where blame can be attributed for what is a pure accident; in fact, we are a long way from that point. Instead, we have a fault-based system where the danger must be reasonable and foreseeable.

There was a public think tank, the Better Regulation Task Force, which was instructed by the last Labour UK government, to look at what is commonly called “compensation culture”. Its report said there was a widespread conception that everyone is suing each other at the drop of a hat, but the truth is very different. In fact, the number of claims is decreasing, rather than increasing.

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Undoubtedly, police, fire and ambulance services have bought into this and are becoming more concerned about health and safety. A couple of years ago in England, a police officer watched a boy drown in a pond as he was not allowed to go in.

There ought, legally, to be different standards between the job a police officer or firefighter does and that, for example, of a park attendant. You might suppose one would accept a higher level of risk than someone who is not in the emergency service.

I think they probably feel hamstrung by health and safety because that is the advice they receive from their in-house lawyers, who are perhaps unduly cautious.

In the Alison Hume case, if the rescuer got into trouble, then, yes, they probably would have had a claim, as the law is always very supportive of people who carry out rescue duties. But the claim would more likely be against the occupier of the land.

For the fire service to find itself in a state of paralysis because of health and safety, to me, seems to miss the point of a fire and rescue service. No-one is suggesting they should feel compelled to go into situations of extreme danger, but a degree of danger is inherent in the nature of the job.

• Graeme Garrett is a senior partner in personal injury litigation at Digby Brown.