The stress on compensation

Roger Pearson reports on the High Court decision to award compensation for stress at work

Teamwork was a key factor in helping achieve the recent landmark compensation decision by the High Court.

In the case, the court ruled that a social worker who claimed he was left "shell shocked" by stress was entitled to compensation from his former employers.

The case is one which, as long as it is not successfully challenged, promises to add a new dimension to personal injury litigation and could give many individuals the right to sue for the effects of overwork.

John Walker, 57, won a ruling from Mr Justice Colman that his employer, Northumberland County Council, was guilty of failing to provide him with a safe system of work. The judge said Walker, whose career ended after he was driven to a nervous breakdown, had been subjected to an "impossible workload".

Over a 13-year period the population in the area where he worked increased from 65,000 to 80,000, but his requests for extra staff and administrative back up were refused.

The judge held that Walker, who had worked for the council since 1985 and who was area manager for the Blyth area, was entitled to damages for what happened.

Those damages are yet to be assessed, but Walker's union, Unison, which backed the claim, has already said it is looking for a pay-out in the region of u200,000. Before any award, however, the decision that he is entitled to be compensated has been hailed by Unison secretary Alan Jinkinson as "a significant victory".

How many similar cases are waiting in the wings pending this decision is not known. But the number of calls received by solicitor John Usher, of the Leeds office of Brian Thompson and Partners, which masterminded the case, indicates a high level of interest from others who appear to have similar actions in the pipeline.

Usher, who says the High Court victory was a satisfying conclusion to "a lot of hard work", says that team effort was a key factor in winning the case.

He admits, though, that assembling the team and holding it together through the preparatory period and the long trial was not an easy task. His firm specialises in union work and he has specialised in personal injury litigation.

Thanks to this specialisation, Usher says the team work was able to extend beyond those directly involved. The ability to draw on a wide pool of knowledge in a wide variety of fields from colleagues in the firm was, for example, invaluable.

In a case which covered such new legal territory, however, even finding experts to give evidence presented problems. "We were looking for experts in a field in which expert evidence had not been required in the past," says Usher.

In the end a psychiatrist and two social work experts, joined the team.

Other key players included Brian Langstaff QC with Andrew Buchan. Usher had already worked extensively with them in the past and stresses the advantage of working with familiar counsel.

Lawyers for the Council, were Crutes of Newcastle, with Simon Hawkesworth QC and Richard Craven as counsel. It is understood that an appeal is being considered.