Court blames employer for social worker's breakdown

A council was yesterday held liable for a social worker's nervous breakdown, in a High Court decision that could open the way for a wave of legal action against employers. The judgment recognised for the first time an employer's duty to protect employees from work-related stress.

Lawyers for John Walker, who was dismissed by Northumberland County Council in 1987 on the ground of ``permanent ill-health'', will now press for compensation in excess of pounds 200,000. Mr Walker, a senior social worker, maintained that two breakdowns he suffered were caused by a huge increase in child-abuse cases.

While the council said it will appeal, there is little doubt the case will encourage other workers to take legal action.

Roger Poole, assistant general secretary of Unison, the public services union which backed Mr Walker's case, warned that employers who placed an ``unreasonable burden'' on their staff could now expect to be taken to court.

Mr Walker, 57, now a self-employed painter and decorator, suffered mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, sleeplessness and bouts of weeping, according to the judgment.

He reported feeling ``shell-shocked'' by the pressure he was put under in the mid-Eighties when child-abuse cases hit the headlines and local authorities sought to ``protect their backs''.

A middle manager with 20 years' service, responsible for social workers in a problem area north of Newcastle, Mr Walker suffered two breakdowns - in November 1986 and in September 1987.

The court ruled that the council was liable for the second breakdown, having failed adequately to relieve Mr Walker's workload despite constant requests. One of Mr Walker's superiors told the hearing in Newcastle that some of his complaints seemed to be ``exaggerated'' and aimed at getting extra leave.

Mr Justice Colman said the second period of illness left Mr Walker ``severely mentally wounded''. His confidence in himself had been ``permanently destroyed''.

The judge decided that while the authority chose to continue to employ him, it provided no effective help. ``In so doing it was in my judgement acting unreasonably and therefore in breach of its duty of care''.

The judgment was reached under common law.

Stress at work, page 4

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before