Bereavement Awards in England – Why Is a Human Life Worth so Little?

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It’s never easy to lose a loved one, no matter the circumstances. However when a loved one is lost due to negligence, the bereavement can be even harder to accept and you may consider bringing a claim for compensation.

Although no amount of money can ever alleviate the pain of bereavement, the purpose of compensation in the United Kingdom is to put individuals back into the position they would have been in had the act of negligence not occurred. This is in contrast to a system of punitive damages, such as in the United States, which seek to punish the person who committed the act of negligence.

As a result, one of the biggest questions that arises from our system of compensation in the UK is “How do you quantify the loss of a loved one?”

In England and Wales, bereavement awards were introduced in 1991 as a way to compensate individuals for the loss of a loved one as a result of negligence.

However, the class of individuals entitled to claim a bereavement award is exceptionally narrow with compensation payable only to the spouse or civil partner of the deceased, or the married parents of a child under the age of 18. When a child dies and his parents were never married then only the mother is entitled to claim the bereavement damages.

In May this year, after years of campaigning for an inclusion criteria that recognises that more and more couples are choosing not to marry, it was announced that the class of individuals will be extended to included couples who had cohabited for two years or more.

When the legislation was introduced, bereavement awards were initially set at just £3,500. They then gradually increased over time, rising to £11,800 in 2008 before reaching the current award of £12,980 in 2013. This figure reflects a notional payment which acknowledges that wrongdoing has occurred but will rarely adequately compensate for the level of grief and loss experienced by the individual or family.

In other parts of the UK, namely Scotland, bereavement damages are assessed on a case-by-case basis which means that all of the circumstances surrounding the death and the familial relationships of the deceased are taken into account when assessing the amount of compensation to be paid. There is no limit on the level of compensation that can be received in Scotland and awards in excess £100,000 have been given out in the past.

Whilst it can be argued that no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one, and a line has to drawn somewhere when it comes to assessing how much compensation is suitable, some campaign groups such as APIL (Association of Personal Injury Lawyers) are calling the current law “rigid” and “discriminatory”.

Chartered legal executive, Mark White, believes that the current system is outdated and in need of urgent reform: “When a client loses a loved one to medical negligence it is always an incredibly distressing and traumatic experience. One of the most difficult parts of my job is explaining why bereavement damages are so low in this country. It is encouraging that the Government has committed to extending the class of individuals to couples who are cohabiting, however this still does not reflect the reality of family units or the individual circumstances involved. The Fatal Accidents Act is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be brought in line with the Scottish system as soon as possible.”

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