English law allows the courts to make liable a person who, intentionally and without good reason, occasions the emotional distress and psychiatric injury of another. Specifically, an individual who negligently causes a nervous shock or psychiatric illness or injury of another should be held responsible. However, the possibility of an individual recovering damages for psychiatric harm resulting from negligent acts or omissions of another is remote. In White v Chief of Constable of South Yorkshire , Lord Steyn held that the existing law on compensation for pure psychiatric harm is “a patchwork of distinctions which are difficult to justify” (50). Steyn’s statement on existing compensation law is justified by the difficulties faced in assessing both primary and secondary victims despite the changes that have been made with regards to rescuers as primary victims and “shock” as a requirement for categorizing secondary victims.
The law has been very restrictive in the award of damages for negligence of real psychiatric harm. Initially, the Caparo test (Caparo Industries PLC v Dickman ) was used to impose a duty of care. However, the courts have now imposed other obstacles that the claimants must satisfy for them to prove the tort of negligently inflicted psychiatric injury (E-lawresources.co.uk). One of the aspects that must be proved based on the decision in Behrens & Ors v Bertram Mills Circus Ltd.  is that there must be established an actual psychiatric injury. However, both emotional grief or sorrow were held in Hinz v Berry  as insufficient to infer psychiatric injury. Moreover, feelings of fear, panic, or even terror were found not to meet the threshold for psychiatric injury (Hicks v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire ). In Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire , the courts opened up the restrictions to apply to a wide range of circumstances, such as those to be considered primary or secondary victims. However, the law is still blurred on the category of rescuers who can be classified as primary victims.
The law on recovery of compensation for pure mental harm was observed by Steyn as an assortment of differentiation since it is not explicit regarding who could be termed as primary victims among rescuers. Notably, the majority in White v Chief of Constable of South Yorkshire  held that rescuers should not be viewed as special categories of primary victims. On the other hand, they will only be considered victims if they actually were, or reasonably believed themselves to be, in danger. However, Lord Olive in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire  held that primary victims should only be those involved “mediately or immediately as participants” (12). A change was later made in Page v Smith  and White & Ors v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire , where it was held that primary victims should only be those in the zone of physical danger. Yet, even establishing who is the zone of physical danger requires the use of an objective approach (McFarlane v E. E. Caledonia ). These distinctions made over the years make it hard to justify whether rescuers are primary victims worthy of compensation. Also, the legal classification of “proper” secondary victims has been confusing and conflicting.
The law on compensation is considered a patchwork of distinction because of the lack of clarity on the amount of “shock” that should be proved for secondary victims to get compensation. Notably, it was the holding of Lord Ackner in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire that “shock” is a sudden sound or sight of a horrifying event that has the effect of violently agitating the claimant’s mind (E-lawresources.co.uk). However, in W v Essex County Council  and Sion v Hampstead Health Authority , a distinction was made where a secondary victim could not claim “shock” when he/she suffered psychiatric injury from taking care of a loved one in long-term care. Later, more distinctions were made in Sutherland v Hatton  and Barber v Somerset County Council , where the courts stated that secondary injury could arise from work-related stress and shock because of the negligence of an employer under a duty to protect employees from psychiatric injury. However, such a position should only be relied on only when the psychiatric injury caused was foreseeable. These discrepancies further make it hard to understand the settled position on the compensation of those who suffer from pure psychiatric injury.
In conclusion, the statement that the law on compensation of those who suffer pure psychiatric injury form the negligent acts and omissions of others is a patchwork is based on the distinctions that the courts have made in relation to primary and secondary victims. The requirement that rescuers should be treated as special primary victims was later changed to demand that they get accorded no special treatment. Additionally, the law on the requirement of secondary victims to prove “shock” for them to be compensated has continued to change over the years. The distinctions and discrepancies from the courts, over the years, have only led to increased confusion and make the law on compensation to be a patchwork of distinctions that are challenging to justify.
Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire  1 AC 310.
Barber v Somerset County Council  UKHL 13.
Behrens & Ors v Bertram Mills Circus Ltd  2 QB 1.
Caparo Industries PLC v Dickman  2 AC 605.
E-lawresources.co.uk. “Negligently Inflicted Psychiatric Harm.” E-Lawresources.Co.Uk, 2020, http://www.e-lawresources.co.uk/Negligently-inflicted-psychiatric-harm.php.
Hicks v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire  2 All ER 65.
Hinz v Berry  2 QB 40.
McFarlane v E. E. Caledonia Ltd  2 All ER.
Page v Smith  1 AC 155.
Sion v Hampstead Health Authority  EWCA Civ 26.
Sutherland v Hatton EWCA Civ 76.
W v Essex County Council  2 WLR 60.
White v Chief of Constable of South Yorkshire  3 WLR 1509.