Case name & citation: Walker v Northumberland County Council  1 All ER 737
Jurisdiction: England and Wales
Year of the case: 1995
The learned judge: Colman J
Area of law: Personal injury under employment law; risk of psychiatric injury
What is the case about?
Walker v Northumberland County Council is a UK labour law case concerning stress at work and related injury.
Although claims for occupational stress have been acknowledged for a considerable amount of time in other common law jurisdictions, particularly USA and Australia, it wasn’t until the case of Walker v Northumberland County Council that a precedent was established in the UK for the first time.
Facts of the case (Walker v Northumberland County Council)
The claimant, Mr Walker worked for Northumberland County Council. He was an experienced Area Social Services Officer who was responsible for the management of four teams of Social Services field workers in a region that had a significant number of issues related to childcare. Population growth in the 1980s led to a large increase in the number of cases referred to him. He repeatedly made requests to the management team for assistance in the form of additional staff or guidance on how the workload should be distributed, but neither was available. He had a mental breakdown in November 1986 and was unable to work until March 1987, on medical advice.
Following his return to the workplace, it was decided that an assistant will be made available to him. Despite this, the agreement was not adhered to. Consequently, the claimant was faced with a rapidly increasing workload and the responsibility of addressing a substantial backlog of paperwork. He had a second nervous breakdown in September 1987, roughly six months after he had returned to work following his previous one. In February 1988, his employers terminated his employment on the grounds of ill health.
He filed a claim for damages against the employer, alleging that they had violated their duty of care to him as his employer. They failed to take reasonable steps to prevent him from being exposed to a workload that could be detrimental to his health.
He argued that his immediate superiors knew that social work was particularly stressful, that such stress could lead to mental illness, and that his workload was such that it would impose increasing stress on him. He also argued that his employers ought to have reasonably foreseen that there was a real risk of him becoming mentally ill if they did not take steps to alleviate the impact of that workload on him.
Was the employer responsible for the mental harm/injury caused to the claimant?
Judgment of the Court in Walker v Northumberland County Council
Colman J, who heard the case at first instance, ruled in favour of the claimant.
When he was giving his judgment, he acknowledged that even though the initial breakdown was brought on by his employers’ failure to provide adequate resources, it was not reasonably foreseeable at that time that the workload to which he was exposed would give rise to a material risk of mental illness.
However, as far as the second breakdown was concerned, the court determined that it was reasonable to foresee that the claimant would experience a risk of him once more becoming mentally ill if he was subjected to the same or a similar workload that was comparable to the one, he was previously under.
Therefore, the court held that the Council breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable precautions to protect Mr Walker from mental harm.
Significance of the case
Because of the Walker case, it was accepted that an employer has a duty of care towards their employees to not only ensure that they don’t suffer a physical injury but also any mental harm or injury, including psychiatric injury. Where it is reasonably foreseeable that an employee’s health may be harmed as a result of stress in the workplace, the employer has a duty to take “practicable steps” to avoid causing injury to the employee.
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