Law blamed for adding to disaster victims' trauma

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

Victims of major disasters, such as the sinking of the Marchioness and the Herald of Free Enterprise, suffer additional stress and trauma because of the inadequacy of the law, a leading lawyer said yesterday.

Michael Napier, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, is calling for urgent reform of the legal process governing disasters, and the introduction of a single "one stop" public inquiry specifically designed for disasters.

Mr Napier, who has represented many victims of recent disasters and their families, said there had been 13 major incidents in the UK since since Aberfan in 1966..

"We might have expected that the experience of so many disasters... would have led to improvements in our ability to respond to the legitimate needs of the victims. However, the sad reality is that... nothing has been learned [about] how badly things can go wrong and why we need reform."

The sinking of the Marchioness in August 1989 was a perfect example, Mr Napier told the First European Conference on Traumatic Stress in Emergency Services, Peace keeping Operations and Humanitarian Aid Organisations in Sheffield. There have been three trials, two inquiries and two official reports and now, almost seven years after the tragedy, the file was with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

"This means that although for many, the story of the Marchioness is history, for its victims it remains very much in the present day. Their anger and suffering continues. Deprived of the knowledge of what really happened that night; deprived of a full explanation, an apology, even vengeance on those they hold responsible, they are unable to put their experiences behind them."

There were no less than seven different types of inquiry in England and Wales that could follow a disaster, Mr Napier said. But one wide-ranging inquiry would provide the victims and their families with:

t A detailed investigation of the facts to establish how the disaster occurred;

t How each person met his or her death;

t How the disaster could have been avoided;

t How to improve safety for the future;

t The assessment and apportionment of blame;

t The penalising of the culpable.

Scottish law was more advanced, and the Fatal Accident Inquiry announced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre would combine the elements of an inquest with a wide-ranging investigation into the facts and determine responsibility

t Terry Waite, the former Beirut hostage, yesterday attacked the views of the Princess Royal as he urged those in Dunblane to take advantage of stress counselling. Princess Anne, who visited Dunblane with the Queen yesterday, angered counsellors when she said more common sense and less counselling was needed.