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Pratley v Surrey County Council, Queen's Bench Division, 31 July 2002

13 August 2002
The issues

Stress – psychiatric injury – social services.

The facts

The Claimant had worked for Surrey County Council since 1986 and at the time she left employment, was working in the Social Services Department as a Case Manager for the Elderly. Before working for the Council, she had qualified as a Nurse and worked both in the RAF and at Leatherhead Cottage Hospital. Her Line Manager was Mrs Elrick who was Locality Care Manager in Leatherhead. The Claimant\’s job entailed assessing clients and their needs and formulating a plan if relevant. She would arrange the appropriate services and equipment. The plan might involve care at home in the community, or in a home. Care at home or in the community involved more active management than when a client was cared for in a home. Mrs Elrick accepted that in the Social Services money was not available to provide the services demanded to the level that Social Workers and public expected and that this led to pressure on staff and that such pressures could lead to stress. She accepted that undue stress created a risk of injury to health. The Claimant argued that she had twice (in March and August 1996) warned of the injury to her health if nothing was done to lighten her burden and that Mrs Elrick had promised to introduce a new system but had failed to honour that promise by September and that that failure was a substantial cause of her illness.

The Defendant argued that there was nothing to put the Council on notice of a particular risk to the Claimant’s health before August 1996. The Claimant had had two weeks off in March 1996 and had hidden the fact that the cause might have been stress related. The meeting that she had had with Mrs Elrick did not put the Council on notice the Defendants argued, that action had to be taken in particular stacking in order to avoid a real risk of injury. Moreover, the Defendant said that the Council provided access to a confidential stress counselling service, occupational health facilities and a private health scheme through BUPA. Mrs Elrick had regularly documented meetings with Mrs Pratley to monitor and discuss problems.

The decision

Following Hatton:-

1. There was a crucial difference that Hatton had made plain between knowledge that pressure and stress at work could lead to injury and specific knowledge that a real risk has arisen in a particular case.

2. The Claimant had been particularly concerned that the Council should not become aware that she was stressed, let alone suffering work related health problems. The Council had had no reason before the August supervision meeting to anticipate injury to her health.

3. The Claimant had not seen fit to go to her own GP, the Occupational Health Department or the counselling services available at that time.

4. Mrs Elrick was aware of the need to consider reorganisation of the Claimant\’s work, but it was reasonable for her to see how things were going on the return from holiday of the Claimant before taking specific action. The Claimant herself had thought that her 3-week holiday would sort her out.

Judgment for the Defendant.

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