Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

The compensation culture is poisoning our society
Fear of litigation is preventing teachers and health workers from doing their jobs.

As a sociologist, and a father, what I find most disturbing about the insidious impact of compensation culture is that it actually influences the way we think about ourselves and people in the community. The corrosive effect of this attitude was brought home to me last December during a skiing holiday in Switzerland. One afternoon, a woman skiing lost control on the slope and collided into my son Jacob. As he was knocked out and lost consciousness it was evident that he was seriously injured; he was flown to a hospital by a helicopter.

When my wife and I arrived at the hospital, we were relieved to discover that Jacob had only broken his collar bone. But we were a bit taken a back when a policeman approached us and asked if we wanted to initiate criminal proceedings against the woman who collided with our son. After telling the officer that we had no such intention, I asked why he had even asked the question. He walked away without answering us. But Jacob’s nurse interjected: “It’s because the Brits are always threatening to sue for everything.”

As our report, The Social Cost of Litigation, suggests, the nurse’s assessment was only a mild form of exaggeration. Far too many people still believe that compensation culture has little to do with their lives. Yes, they have heard of people trying it on with frivolous claims. Yes, they have seen ambulance chasers hustling for business in NHS hospitals, but most citizens assume that this phenomenon only affects local authorities, the health service and other big institutions and insurance companies.

The reality is very different. During the course of our interviews we were struck by the frequency with which people drew attention to the corrosive impact that the anticipation of litigation had on their professional life and on their relationship with the users of their services. Often the fear of litigation is as harmful as an actual demand for compensation. In the case of six-year-old Alicia, for example, her mother was told a day before her daughter’s birthday party that she could not bring in a home-baked cake to the party at school in case any of the other children had “food issues” and “the parents sue”.

Perhaps a disappointed young girl is not headline news. But “what if?” questions about litigation are used with increasing frequency to restrict the activities of children. It is not just playground games and extracurricular activities that are affected by the need for litigation-aversion. The very relationship that teachers have with parents and children has become complicated by it. Teachers frequently regard a parent as a potential litigator. Consequently, instead of being direct and providing a clear assessment of a child’s progress and abilities, many teachers opt for avoiding words that might lead to disputes. As one chemistry teacher told me, “arguments lead to complaints, and complaints to a letter from a lawyer”.

Education has more than its share of problems. But one of the most insidious forces at work in our school system is the growing involvement of litigators in the class room. Back in 1999, when I wrote a Centre for Policy Studies report on compensation culture, its influence on education was relatively marginal. During the past decade, self-styled specialist lawyers have grasped the numerous opportunities available to turn the disappointment of parents into hard cash. As a result, many parents whose children did not get into the school of their choice do not simply appeal but employ specialist lawyers to put pressure on the relevant authorities. When a head teacher is forced to spend up to six hours dealing with a lawyer’s letter, it becomes evident that precious time needed for educating our children is lost.

A head-teacher of a primary school in Warwickshire was actually bemused to discover that the parents of a pupil injured in the playground did not make a claim for the accident suffered by their child. But what really shocked this head is that the child’s father brought in chocolate for the staff who looked after his son. Something has clearly gone wrong when what surprises a teacher is the absence of a lawyer’s letter in the aftermath of a normal accident.

One final point. Many of the big problems associated with the public sector – the decline of an ethos of care – are either directly or indirectly linked to concerns about litigation. Litigation avoidance sometimes distracts health professionals from doing what their patient really needs. It also discourages teachers from acting according to their professional judgment when faced with the risk of a potential claim.

First published by Sunday Telegraph, 9 September 2012