Letter: Psychiatry in court

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The Independent Online
DR Leopold Field (letter, 20 March) goes too far in dismissing the validity of legal claims for compensation for psychiatric conditions.

Dr Field suggests that many unwarranted claims are pursued, often at public expense, because it is "virtually impossible for someone to be interviewed by a psychiatrist and leave the consulting room without having some psychiatric label attached to them." If this is true, it is not indictment of the principle that psychiatric injury should be a compensable loss, but just a condemnation of the practices of some psychiatrists.

The law has only quite recently in its history begun in civil and criminal cases to recognise the clinical evidence of mental injury. Post traumatic stress disorders and the crime of assault occasioning psychiatric injury are cases in point. It is surely an insult to the many genuinely injured victims recognised by the courts to suggest their suffering is bogus.

The courts must evaluate the evidence in each case, and, following a recent House of Lords decision (Bolitho v City and Hackney [1997] 2 A11 ER 771), their task has been simplified. The case concerned an allegation of medical negligence, but the decision has wider implications for the status of medical evidence.

The Lords ruled that courts are now not bound to accept medical analysis held by a reasonable body of practitioners but are able to subject the evidence to a further test of reasonableness and logicality. Hence, and perhaps very contentiously, psychiatric evidence will no longer be regarded as unimpeachable by virtue of it being substantiated solely by psychiatrists.


Director of the Law Programme

The Open University

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire