Catherine Morgan, Solicitor in our Serious Injury team, provides a brief overview of bereavement damages under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and discusses the inherent unfairness in relation to the Statutory Bereavement Award in England and Wales and the urgent need for reform in the pursuit of justice and compassion for bereaved families.
In the unfortunate event of the unlawful death of a loved one caused by the negligent actions of a third party, bereavement damages serve as a form of personal injury compensation for bereaved families. Bereavement damages under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (‘the act’) aims to provide some solace to those who have lost a family member due to someone else’s wrongdoing. However, while it offers a degree of financial recompense, the fixed sum allocated for bereavement damages has long been a topic of debate and contention.
The essence of bereavement damages under the act is to compensate bereaved families for the non-financial benefits that would have been enjoyed but for the death. The act seeks to recognise that the loss extends beyond just the financial implications and acknowledge the emotional toll taken upon bereaved families.
As of 1 May 2020, the fixed sum for bereavement damages stands at £15,120, an increase from the previous £12,980. While an upward revision may be seen as a step in the right direction, in my experience of supporting bereaved families and seeing the impact that the unlawful death of a loved one causes, the amount still falls short of addressing the needs of the affected families. The increase is still considered by many, including myself, to be inadequate in light of the emotional and psychological suffering by the bereaved.
The disparity between the fixed sum and the actual impact of the loss underscores a broader concern regarding the valuation of a human life. All too often, in the work that I do, I see that families grappling in the aftermath of losing a loved one are facing financial burdens, compounded by the emotional trauma of their loss. In such circumstances, the prescribed amount of bereavement damages does not compare to the actual costs incurred and the intangible void left behind.
Who can claim bereavement damages?
The current legislation entitles you to the bereavement award if you are:
- The wife, husband or civil partner of the deceased;
- The deceased’s partner, if cohabiting for two years or more;
- Parents, where the deceased is a ‘legitimate’ minor; or
- A mother, where the deceased is ‘not a legitimate’ minor.
Many people in England and Wales are shocked to find that they are not entitled to bereavement damages for the pain and suffering experienced following the death of a loved one. The categories of individuals eligible for bereavement damages in England and Wales is unfairly narrow as it excludes, for example, the unmarried father of a child under the age of 18, parents of an adult child who is over the age of 18, children who lose a parent irrespective of the child’s age, siblings and grandparents.
Calls for reform
At a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) spoke about ‘token’ bereavement damages not being enough and that Scottish Law on bereavement damages should be mirrored throughout the UK. There are stark differences between the UK and Scotland, both in terms of the amounts typically awarded and the categories of relatives who are entitled to claim. In Scotland, there is not a fixed sum for any relatives, unlike the fixed award in the UK. The awards from the courts in Scotland have tended to be substantially higher.
In relation to the fixed ‘token’ bereavement award Lorraine Gwinnutt, APIL’s Head of Campaigns and Communications said,
“that token is not enough, and the way the law is applied to bereaved families is grossly unfair.” “The law in England and Wales does not recognise the potential family closeness of brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces. The law does not even recognise the closeness of an unmarried father to his children. But the law in Scotland recognises [for example] that love for a child does not end when the child turns 18. It recognises that modern family life is incredibly diverse.”
APIL have a long-running and ongoing drive to change the law on bereavement damages in England, Wales and Northern Ireland a campaign which we fully support.