Walker v Northumberland County Council

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Walker v Northumberland County Council [1995] 1 All ER 737

Employer’s duty to provide safe system of work; whether duty extends to risk of psychiatric illness.

Facts

Mr Walker was a social worker employed by the defendant who had a heavy, emotionally demanding caseload and suffered a mental breakdown in 1986. Upon his return to work, he repeatedly requested assistance, but the defendant provided no additional support and he suffered a second breakdown in 1987. He was dismissed due to ill health and brought an action against the defendant for breaching their duty of care to take steps to ensure he had a manageable workload.

Issues

The defendant employer is under a duty of care to provide a safe system of work to its employees per Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English [1938] AC 57. Mr Walker argued that the duty of care extended to taking reasonable steps to avoid the risk of exposing him to a workload which was detrimental to his mental health. The defendants argued that on policy grounds and due to a general lack of resources within the county council, it was inappropriate for the court to evaluate the reasonableness of their operational allocation of resources.

Held

There was no logical reason to exclude the risk of psychiatric injury from an employer’s duty of care. As the first breakdown was not reasonably foreseeable, the defendants were not in breach for failing to take steps to avoid it. The second breakdown, however, was foreseeable, if Mr Walker was not offered additional support. Regard should be had to the resources available to the defendant but it was right and proper for the court to evaluate their conduct, and given the gravity of the illness and the level of risk, the defendants were in breach of duty for failing to take reasonable steps to avoid it.

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