Donal Nolan, ‘Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police (1991)’

This chapter considers the landmark decision in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992] 1 AC 310 concerning liability for psychiatric injury, or ‘nervous shock’. Alcock is the single most important English authority on liability for nervous shock, since although its implications for so-called ‘primary victims’ and rescuers may have been diluted by later case law, as far as ‘secondary victims’ are concerned, it remains the controlling decision. In this chapter, I argue that Alcock was an essentially conservative decision, rather than the reactionary one which it is often assumed to have been, and hence that it is a landmark case not so much because it represented a significant change in the law’s direction, but because it codified or systematised what had come before. I also argue that the conservatism of Alcock was likely to have been influenced, not only by the facts of the case itself, but also by the large number of other man-made disasters that occurred in the UK in the late 1980s, by developments in Australia and the United States, and by broader trends in English tort law. Finally, I critique the claim that in Alcock the House of Lords overstepped the proper limits of adjudication, and engaged in ‘judicial legislation’. My analysis begins with the development of the English law relating to nervous shock up until Alcock and continues with some important cases in Australia and the United States, before considering the wider context in which Alcock was decided. There follows a detailed analysis of the Alcock litigation itself. I conclude by making some general observations about the House of Lords’ decision.

Nolan, Donal, Alcock v. Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police (1991) (February 18, 2010). Charles Mitchell and Paul Mitchell (eds), Landmark Cases in the Law of Tort (Hart Publishing 2010) 273-309.

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