Case name & citation: Barber v Somerset County Council  UKHL 13;  IRLR 475 (HL);  ICR 457;  1 WLR 1089
Court and jurisdiction: The House of Lords, England and Wales
Decided on: 1 April 2004
The bench of judges: Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Lord Steyn, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry and Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe
Area of law: Personal injury under employment law
What is the case about?
Barber v Somerset County Council is a UK labour law case from the year 2004. In this, the House of Lords decided that a local authority was in breach of its duty towards its employee to take reasonable care to avoid injuring his health when it had become aware that the difficulties at work were having a negative impact on his mental health, but had taken no steps to assist the employee.
Facts of the case (Barber v Somerset County Council)
Mr Barber had been employed as a teacher by the local authority for quite some time. In September 1995, there was a restructuring of staff at the school where he was working, and he was informed that in order to keep his current salary level, he would need to take on additional responsibilities. To do so, he put in anywhere from 61 to 70 hours of work per week, and he was often required to put in extra time on evenings and weekends.
In 1996, he voiced concerns about the work overload to the school’s deputy head teacher. Subsequently, he consulted his GP about stress at work. He had also inquired about the possibility of taking early retirement. In May 1996, he was absent from work for three weeks due to stress and depression, as was certified by his GP. When he got back to work, he discussed with the head teacher and the two deputy head teachers the fact that he was struggling to keep up with his workload and that he believed the situation was becoming detrimental to his health.
No action was taken by the school to assist him, and he did not receive a particularly sympathetic response. He again contacted his GP regarding stress a couple of times. After losing control and going through a mental collapse in November 1996, Mr Barber left the school and did not return. By that time, he was unable to work as a teacher or perform any work other than undemanding part-time work.
Mr Barber sued the employer for damages for personal injury. Initially, the trial judge awarded him damages but this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal when considering the cases of four separate claimants together in Hatton v Sutherland and other conjoined cases  EWCA Civ 76. To this, Mr Barber appealed to the House of Lords.
Was the employer liable for breach of duty towards Mr Barber?
Judgment of the Court in Barber v Somerset County Council
The case was finally determined in Mr Barber’s favour, and the House of Lords awarded him damages of £72,000. Mr Barber, an experienced and dedicated teacher, had been absent from the classroom for three weeks with no physical illness; this absence was certified by his GP as being related to stress and depression. The Court found that the duty of his employer to take some action arose in June or July of 1996, when Mr Barber had seen members of the school’s management team, and it continued for so long as nothing had been done to assist him.
Even though the school as a whole was experiencing severe problems, with all of the teachers being stressed and overworked, this does not mean that there was nothing that could have been done to help Mr Barber. The senior management team should have made inquiries about his problems and discovered what they could have done to ease them. They should have reassessed his workload for the sake of his health.
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