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Stress at Work - House of Lords

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The House of Lords has, this morning, handed down judgment in Barber v Somerset County Council. This is one of the four co-joined cases heard before the Court of Appeal as Sutherland v Hatton - but was the only one of the four to appeal to the House of Lords.

The majority of the House of Lords, in a 4-1 judgment, allowed the appeal and overturned the Court of Appeal's decision.

Despite that sounding enormously exciting for Claimant / Applicant lawyers, all five judges made it very clear that they believed the Court of Appeal's (restrictive) interpretation of the law relating to stress at work claims to be correct - largely because Mr Baber's legal team accepted it was correct (para. 39). Lord Scott stated that the Court of Appeal had "succinctly and accurately express[ed] the principles that ought to be applied." (para. 5). Lord Walker described, as "a point of great importance", the distinction between an individual believing they suffered from stress at work, and telling their employer that they suffered from stress at work.

The decision was overturned, though, on the facts. The majority (Lords Walker, Bingham, Rodger and Steyn) thought that even though the legal principles enunciated by Hale LJ in the Court of Appeal were correct, the County Court judge was "entitled to form the view" that the Defendant employer was in breach of its duty of care (para. 70). The minority (Lord Scott) thought that - again, although the Court of Appeal's exposition of the law was correct - the trial judge might have reached a different conclusion if he had the benefit of Hale LJ's judgment, and as a matter of policy, the Court of Appeal had been correct in interfering.

Thus, by a 4-1 majority, the County Court judge's finding that Mr Barber could recover damages for stress at work was reinstated.