Letter: Suing for distress

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The Independent Online
PROFESSOR Andrew Burrows, author of the recent Law Commission report on liability for psychiatric illness is quoted as saying: "The law is not saying you can recover damages just because you were upset because of grief or anxiety. There is a line and we are saying there should continue to be a line between a recognised psychiatric illness and mental distress." ("Reforms may allow `Hillsborough' awards", 10 March.)

This is an example of how out of touch an academic lawyer can be with what actually takes place in personal injury litigation.

It is possible for a subject to be seen by a neurologist, cardiologist, endocrinologist or chest physician and leave the consulting room having been told there is nothing wrong with him or her. 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.

Psychiatrists are adept at interpreting all human behaviour and emotional reactions in terms of psychopathology. Understandable reactions of unhappiness and concern are "diagnosed" as depression and anxiety. A problem in dealing with a particular situation is regarded as an "adjustment disorder".

As far as litigation is concerned, time and time again what a social worker or a priest or any member of the public would regard as understandable mental distress is "diagnosed" by a psychiatrist instructed by a plaintiff's solicitor as some form of psychological illness which is deserving of damages. The expert instructed by a plaintiff's solicitor is only too well aware that if he writes a report which is "helpful" with regard to a particular case, he is likely to go on being instructed in the future. It is entirely understandable that the Bar should regard experts as "hired guns".

If the proposals of the Law Commission are accepted, there will be an absolute flood of reports prepared by psychiatrists claiming that friends and relatives of the victims of accidents are suffering from some form of psychological illness.

Whatever benefits may accrue to the legal profession, it will be the public who will foot the bill, for insurers will now have to face claims not only from the plaintiff but from members of the plaintiff's family.


London W1