Almost everyone will be familiar with the phrases 'Where there is blame, there's a claim' and the so called 'Compensation Culture' of the UK. So when people ask me what I do for a living, I brace myself for the reaction when I tell them I am a claimant personal injury lawyer.
Now I'll be the first to admit that there is a popular belief amongst some people that personal injury lawyers are responsible for 'sucking the fun' out of everyday life. But of course I would hope that people who have been unfortunate enough to be injured and who we've helped recover compensation for would have a different view of us!
Over the last few years, the media has been littered with stories about 'health and safety gone mad'. A few that spring to mind include graduating students at Cambridge being banned from throwing their caps in the air in case anyone was injured by a falling hat, children banned from playing with conkers or yo-yos in the school playground, and you may also remember former Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles on-air rant about being banned by the BBC from lighting candles on a birthday cake due to the fire hazard and being forced to use a plastic knife to cut it so he didn't injure himself.
However my personal favourite was a story in the news earlier this year when a school in Canvey Island, Essex hit the headlines when they banned the school canteen from serving triangular flapjacks after one hit a pupil in the eye when it was thrown. The canteen staff were then instructed to only serve the flapjacks in square or rectangular shapes as these were less likely to cause injury. Even the Health and Safety Executive on hearing the story commented that they "often come across half-baked decisions taken in the name of health and safety, but this one takes the biscuit."
Flapjack-gate is a classic example of where health and safety regulations are used as an excuse for some of the more bizarre rules employers, schools or other institutions implement. The real issue in that particular case was the behaviour of the pupil who threw the flapjack, not the shape of it, and the last time I checked squares and rectangles also had corners so I very much doubt that changing the shape would have any effect on the outcome - if something hits you in the eye its likely to hurt!
Quite often, there is no basis of health and safety behind these decisions, but it often appears to be due to a fear of being sued that health and safety is blamed. I think you would be hard pressed to find a lawyer willing to take on a case such as the flapjack incident, and the important thing to remember is that accidents do happen where there is no blame to be placed - sometimes people are just unlucky!
Genuine claims arise only where there is a breach of a regulation, or there has been negligence that has led to an injury.
Wrapped in cotton wool?
I was therefore pleased to see that Bilston Church of England Primary School are taking a more measured approach to handling pupils playing conkers by choosing to supervise rather than to outright ban the game. Gary Gentle, headteacher at the West Midlands school, said:
"We are certainly not going to ban conkers here. The age of innocence is very much alive and kicking at this school. Kids love to go outside and learn and we are keen to feature the environment as part of our lessons."
Nobody wants to be wrapped up in cotton wool and it frustrates me when I see the regulations that are there to protect us from harm being misinterpreted and exploited in such a way. Health and safety has, for some people, a negative connotation which is not surprising when the media is rife with stories such as those detailed above.
But in reality health and safety laws are vital in our society and it is important that we work together to ensure that they are implemented sensibly and correctly.
About the author
Gemma Agar is a Chartered Legal Executive and a mixed liability lawyer. Gemma has over five years experience dealing with personal injury cases and specialises in occupiers and public liability claims.