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Singh v Bhakar & Another, Nottingham County Court, 24 July 2006

16 August 2006
The issues

Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – psychiatric harm – harassment from Mother-In-Law.

The facts

The Claimant brought a claim against her former Mother-In-Law Mrs Bhakar for damages, including aggravated damages, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. She and Mrs Bhakar’s son were married in November 2002 and lived at the Bhakar family home in Ilford until the marriage came to an end in March 2003. The Claimant’s case was that during this period Mrs Bhakar conducted a campaign of Harassment against the Claimant which had the effect of ending the marriage and causing serious health problems. The Trial Judge found that the Claimant had been coerced into having her hair cut against her wishes by Mrs Bhakar. The Judge found that the purpose of requiring the hair to be cut and then displayed to members of the family was to humiliate the Claimant and in the knowledge that short hair was abhorrent to the Claimant on religious and traditional grounds. She had been forced to wear a locket bearing Hindu symbols which was offensive for a religious Sikh. She had been made to do excessive and unnecessary housework by her Mother-In-Law including demeaning work such as cleaning toilets. The Judge found that the intention of Mrs Bhakar was not initially cruelty but rather a programme of discipline. However the programme of discipline was seen not to work and Mrs Bhakar decided to step it up. Eventually, in the view of one of the witnesses with which evidence the Judge agreed, Mrs Bhakar tried to drive the Claimant down mentally and physically. She was asked to do menial tasks. Her use of the telephone was restricted to one call each week to her family and her part in any incoming call was monitored by a member of the family standing by her. The intention was to isolate her. She was not allowed to go out on her own and was not allowed to watch television news or read newspapers. She was prohibited from going to her uncle’s funeral.

The medical evidence was to the effect that the Claimant suffered a grouping of symptoms which satisfied the criteria for a moderate depressive episode but not PTSD. The prognosis was only moderately positive with some risk of her depression becoming chronic. She had been left with debilitating disabilities as a result of her psychiatric disorder and had failed to resume the employment which she had before her marriage because of her symptoms of depression.

The decision

The Court had been urged to be slow in applying the Act to a domestic context. However the Court’s task was to apply the plain words of the statute to the facts. A Judge should be slow to refuse on policy grounds to grant a statutory remedy if the provisions of the statute applied to the facts of the case which was the situation here.

The conduct of Mrs Bhakar was more than enough to amount to harassment for the purposes of the Act. No separate award for aggravated damages would be made but what might otherwise have fallen into that category would be treated as part of the general damages.

The Court had been urged to consider the Judicial Studies Guidelines with regard to quantifying the Claimant’s damages. The relevant bracket had been agreed as £10,500.00 to £30,000.00 for moderately severe psychiatric damage. However there were three distinctions between the award for personal injuries and an award for damages. Firstly, in the personal injury action there was rarely a significant element to reflect the trauma of the acts itself. Here the Court had to take into account the “four months of hell” which the Claimant had lived through; secondly, the course of conduct towards the Claimant was not negligent or even reckless but deliberate and the Claimant was entitled to an element of compensation for having been deliberately targeted; thirdly, there was the element of quasi-aggravated damages to be considered.

The first two matters would justify an award of £27,500.00. Taking into account the way in which the Defence case has been conducted, though not by Counsel, the overall award should be £35,000.00.

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