Walker v. Northumberland County Council
Queen's Bench Division: Newcastle
16 November. The plaintiff, Mr. Walker, worked for the defendants, the
Northumberland County Council, as an area social services officer from 1970 until
December 1987. His position was one in middle management. He was responsible
as manager for four teams of social services field workers in the Blyth Valley area
of Northumberland. His office was at Cramlington. He in turn was answerable to the
assistant director of the field services division of the council's social services
department ("the department"). That was Mr. D. N. Davison. His office was at
County Hall, Morpeth.
Blyth Valley was one of five social service divisions in Northumberland. It was
a predominantly urban area and comprised a new town development at Cramlington
with a relatively high proportion of young families with children many of whom had
recently acquired houses which had previously been local authority housing. It was
an area which because of the social profile of the population was particularly
productive of childcare problems falling within the ambit of responsibility of the
department. Amongst these problems in the course of the 1980s child abuse
references were particularly prevalent. The population in Blyth Valley rose during
this period and so did the volume of work which had to be undertaken by Mr.
Walker and his teams of field workers. Although the number of field workers in the
area had been increased during the period 1974 to 1978, there was no increase after
1978. By 1986 the pressure of work on those social service workers who were
working in Blyth Valley had become very considerable. Not only were the teams of
field workers under increased pressure, but so was Mr. Walker. The stress and
anxiety created by that work pressure was intense. The increasing incidence of child
abuse cases was particularly stressful for all concerned: for the field workers whose
cases they were and who had to deal directly with the families and children and for
Mr. Walker whose responsibility it was to make provision for the *705 adequate
manning of such cases by his teams of field social workers and for the holding of
case conferences and the production of reports in respect of each child referred to
the department in his area of Blyth Valley.
At the end of November 1986 Mr. Walker suffered a nervous breakdown. He
suffered from mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, headaches, sleeplessness,
irritability, inability to cope with any form of stress and a tendency to weep and to
become upset. Under medical advice he remained off work until 4 March 1987. Mr.
Walker was 50 on 10 March 1987.
While off work Mr. Walker was treated by his family doctor and was seen by
Dr. D. A. Stephens, a very experienced psychiatrist who had known him
professionally for many years by reason of Mr. Walker's social services work. Mr.
Walker had no previous history of mental disorder and Dr. Stephens observed that
"his anxieties are sharply focused on work pressures, while a comprehensive review
of all other areas of his life fail to produce any evidence of concurrent problems."
He had known Mr. Walker "as a stable, industrious and committed colleague for
many years and was suprised to hear about his recent difficulties." It is common
ground that Mr. Walker's illness was attributable to the impact on his personality of
By 11 February 1987 Mr. Walker had discussed his position in the department
with Mr. Davison, his immediate superior. Dr. Stephens had advised Mr. Walker
that he should not go back to the same level of work responsibility as before. Mr.
Davison was very sympathetic and concerned that Mr. Walker should settle back
into his old job as Blyth Valley area officer. Mr. Walker made it clear to Mr.
Davison that it was necessary to take the pressure off his job by splitting the Blyth
Valley area into two divisions. To this Mr. Davison did not agree. However, in the
course of their discussion it was agreed that Mr. Walker would on his return to work
be assisted in his duties as area officer by Mr. R. D. Robinson, a principal field work
officer, who had already been sent from County Hall to the Cramlington office to
cover for Mr. Walker during his illness. Mr. Walker was given to understand that
Mr. Robinson would be seconded to him temporarily, but for as long as he was
needed to back up Mr. Walker. Mr. Davison also told Mr. Walker that he would visit
the Cramlington office weekly to see Mr. Walker. He was also to be given
assistance from other area officers in chairing case conferences in child abuse cases.
The impression of that discussion which Mr. Walker conveyed to Dr. Stephens was
recorded by Dr. Stephens as being that "the content and responsibilities of his job
have been substantially altered in his favour."
In the event, after Mr. Walker returned to work, he was not visited by Mr.
Davison, and Mr. Robinson had such a large workload from his own cases from
County Hall that he was only intermittently available to assist at Cramlington.
Within a month of Mr. Walker's return to work Mr. Davison told Mr. Walker that
Mr. Robinson was needed to cover for other members of staff who were away and
could not continue to work at Blyth Valley. Mr. Robinson's very limited support was
withdrawn by early April 1987, at which point, according to Mr. Walker, he was
exhausted. Not only was he standing in at Blyth Valley, but he was also attempting
*706 to keep up with his main duties at County Hall. He had, in the course of the
period after Mr. Walker's return, been appearing only intermittently to help Mr.
Mr. Walker found that during his absence a substantial volume of paperwork had
built up and was waiting to be dealt with. It was May before he cleared the backlog.
In the meantime the number of pending childcare cases in Blyth Valley was
increasing at a considerable rate. The number of pending cases rose from 148 to 174
between March/April 1987 and July 1987. Mr. Walker, however, had only very
limited additional support during 1987 by comparison with what had been available
to him in 1986. He was, on occasion, able to enlist assistance from area officers
from other areas in chairing review meetings for child abuse cases. Nevertheless, as
the work built up in March to July 1987, he began once again to experience stress
symptoms. He took two weeks' holiday in August 1987, but in September shortly
after his return to work, the stress symptoms again built up and on 8 September
1987 he was obliged to tell Mr. Davison that he could not go on. He was having to
postpone doing urgent work and he was very worried that his state of mind was such
that his judgment in relation to decision taking was being adversely affected. On 16
September 1987 he was given medical advice to go on sick leave. He was diagnosed
to be affected by a state of stress-related anxiety.
In the event he suffered a second mental breakdown and was obliged to retire
from his post, having in effect been severely mentally wounded. It is said that in
consequence he was rendered quite incapable of ever returning to the kind of social
services work which, for 20 years, had been his career and indeed of taking on ever
again work which involved the shouldering of significant responsibilities. His
confidence in himself was permanently destroyed. In February 1988 he was
dismissed by the council on the grounds of permanent ill health.
Mr. Walker now claims damages against the council for breach of its duty of
care as his employer in failing to take reasonable steps to avoid exposing him to a
health-endangering workload. He contends that the council ought to have
appreciated that the workload to which he was exposed might endanger his health,
in view of the warnings of excessive workloading in Blyth Valley which he had
from 1984 to 1987 repeatedly given to his superiors, notably Mr. Davison, and in
view of the inherently stress-creating nature of social services work of that kind.
The factual basis for the plaintiff's claim
The factual basis upon which Mr. Walker puts his claim may be summarised as
follows. In general the nature of much of the work in the social services is stressful.
In particular it is likely to cause anxiety to those who have difficult and upsetting
cases to deal with, notably field workers, and to those who are called to participate
in decision making as to how particular cases or groups of cases should be dealt
with. Amongst the most difficult and stressful cases are child abuse cases. Particular
stress is created by many of those cases because social workers often have to decide
whether it is justifiable to take the child in question and perhaps other children away
from the parents, knowing that a wrong decision may have extremely serious
consequences, involving the risk of death in *707 extreme cases and of far-reaching
effects on the life of the child and its family in others. The expert witnesses,
Professor Parsloe, Mr. Hayes and Professor Sims called by the plaintiff and Dr.
Wood called by the council, all acknowledged that social work could be of a
stressful nature and Professor Sims and Dr. Wood had experience in treating social
workers who had developed psychiatric illnesses in the course of their work.
Having heard this expert evidence, I am satisfied that, although sheer volume of
work often imposes stress which can cause psychiatric damage to a normally robust
personality, the character of the work can itself impose stresses capable of causing
such psychiatric change, regardless of volume of work. A given normal personality
may develop mental illness when the character of the volume of work which has to
be undertaken is intrinsically stressful, notwithstanding that less stressful work of
equal volume might have no detrimental effect.
The intrinsically stressful character of child abuse cases would clearly be
expected to bear heavily on field social workers whose cases had to be managed. I
am, however, quite satisfied that not only would such cases give rise to stress in
field workers, but also in those who, like Mr. Walker, had the responsibility of
participating in the decision taking which such cases demanded. [His Lordship
reviewed the evidence as to the nature of the plaintiff's work and the structure and
manning of the council's social services department and concluded:]
I find that in the period from early 1985 to the occurrence of his first illness in
November 1986 a distinct and material cause of stress and anxiety for Mr. Walker
was his failure to persuade his superior managers to take any steps to alleviate the
work pressure on the Blyth Valley social workers in general and himself in
particular. He was in reality trapped in a situation where on the one hand he was
unable to control the increasing volume of stressful work confronting his teams of
field workers and himself and where on the other he was unable to persuade superior
management to increase staff or to give management guidance as to work
distribution or prioritisation. In the circumstances, by the time of his first illness
there was little Mr. Walker could do to alleviate the position by reducing the
pressure on himself or his teams. The seriousness of the situation in Blyth Valley is
illustrated by a report of Mr. Robinson, principal field work officer, written on 10
December 1986, after he had been sent by Mr. Davison to the Blyth Valley area to
assist Mr. Ride, a team leader, to cover for Mr. Walker while he was away ill. He
wrote with reference to one of the childcare teams:
"The team are, of course, quite anxious about the current situation
and feel vulnerable and tired. Morale is low and they know they
cannot cope with the statutory workload let alone take on new
referrals or do much in the way of preventative work with families. I
am told that the team has 48 children registered with the N.S.P.C.C.
and some 101 statutory cases. Whilst Les Davison agrees that some
N.S.P.C.C. registered children are included in the statutory numbers
and may be in a safe placement, even if there were 100 cases this
would, in my view, be too much for 3 staff to cope with in any real
sense. The situation is obviously quite chronic and I very much *708
suspect that even when the team are at 'full strength' their ability to
meet expectations -- theirs or the department's -- is very limited."
Only a ruthless system of prioritisation resulting in a substantial withdrawal of
services from the public could have had any immediate effect and that could not
have been done by Mr. Walker's decision alone. It would have to be approved by
County Hall and, having regard to possible political repercussions, that approval was
not certain to be given.
I am further satisfied that the causes of stress which I have identified were the
only external circumstances which brought about Mr. Walker's first illness. It was
thus the operation of those circumstances on his personality which brought about his
Was the plaintiff's first illness caused by a breach of the council's duty of care?
Mr. Walker's case is that his immediate superiors knew that social work is
particularly stressful, that such stress can give rise to mental illness, that the
workload falling upon Mr. Walker as area officer of the Blyth Valley area was by
1984 such as to impose increasing stress on Mr. Walker, that such workload became
more stressful during the period 1984 to 1986 and that accordingly they ought
reasonably to have foreseen that, unless they took steps to alleviate the impact of
that workload, there was a real risk that Mr. Walker would suffer mental illness. In
those circumstances, the council's duty as employer of Mr. Walker being to take
reasonable steps to provide a safe system of work, it was in breach of that duty in as
much as the system of work was a threat to mental health which remained
unremedied and caused Mr. Walker's mental breakdown.
The council's case is that, while it concedes that it owed to Mr. Walker a general
duty to exercise reasonable care to provide him with a reasonably safe working
system and to take reasonable steps to protect him from risks which are reasonably
foreseeable, there was no breach of that duty: it was not reasonably foreseeable at
any material time that Mr. Walker's work would impose upon him such stress as to
give rise to a real risk of mental illness and alternatively, if such risk was reasonably
foreseeable, the council did not in all the circumstances, in particular the budgetary
constraints to which the department was subject at the time, act unreasonably in
failing to relieve the pressure on Mr. Walker. Mr. Hawkesworth, on behalf of the
council, has submitted that, inasmuch as the only effective remedial measures would
have involved taking on more staff and therefore the allocation of additional funds
for that purpose by the department or, indeed the council itself, and since the
application of the council's limited resources involved policy-making decisions as
distinct from operational decisions, the council cannot be said to have been in
breach of any duty of care in having failed to take those decisions.
By 1984 Mr. Davison, as a trained social worker, was aware in general that
social work could be extremely stressful and that childcare work and, in particular,
child abuse cases might be matters of considerable anxiety to social workers. His
own experience of social work and published material which existed at that time
would have made this apparent. I am *709 also satisfied that Mr. Davison knew
from his training that excessive work-stress could cause mental illness and further
that the person under stress might not appreciate that his health was being damaged.
Furthermore, Mr. Davison was well aware that by 1985 there had developed in the
Blyth Valley area a demand for the provision of social services, particularly in the
area of childcare, so great that the staff were operating on a crisis-management
basis, and were so inundated with child-care and guardian ad litem duties that they
were obliged substantially to neglect other areas of social work -- particularly
preventative social work -- which good practice required should be carried out in the
area. Mr. Davison also knew by this time that this situation had arisen because
demand for social services, particularly childcare, had substantially risen in Blyth
Valley without there having been, over the previous 10 years, any increase in staff to
deal with the increased demand.
Having heard Mr. Davison in the witness box for many hours, I have no doubt
that from 1984 onwards, if not much earlier, he realised that social services in
Northumberland were both understaffed and inadequately organised in the sense that
there was a serious and urgent need for a restructuring of the field services
department to achieve a redistribution of existing staff so as to make staff available
for those services which had the highest priority, in particular childcare, and that the
consequence of any such restructuring or redistribution of staff would be to alleviate
the pressure of work in Blyth Valley and Wansbeck, the two urban areas. I am
further satisfied that he fully appreciated from 1984 onwards that the rapidly
increasing demand for field services in Blyth Valley by comparison with the other
areas, particularly for childcare services, was making and would make Mr. Walker's
management responsibilities increasingly difficult to carry out. He further
appreciated that Mr. Walker, as a manager, had a growing sence of grievance that
nothing was being done by the department at County Hall level to alleviate the
position either by dividing Blyth Valley into two areas or by shifting staff from the
rural areas or by taking on more staff to relieve the pressure in Blyth Valley. It is
also clear on the evidence that from a meeting of 25 November 1985 Mr. Davison
must have known that Mr. Walker then believed that, unless steps were taken which
had the effect within two years of making more staff available in Blyth Valley and
in removing from Mr. Walker the current problem of managing a much understaffed
childcare service, he would not be able to carry on managing the area.
Mr. Davison's perception of Mr. Walker as an area manager was based on
having known him personally since about 1972, shortly after both of them had
started in social work. He saw Mr. Walker as a conscientious area manager,
somewhat lacking in confidence in his team leaders and therefore likely to become
rather too involved in the chairing of childcare case conferences, instead of
delegating that function to team leaders. He was seen as very ready to send off
memoranda to County Hall detailing his concerns about the provision of social
services in Blyth Valley, which Mr. Davison saw as an effort to cover his own back
in case there was political criticism of shortcomings of the services in that area.
It is clear on the evidence that Mr. Davison realised that Mr. Walker had a very
difficult management position, that many services in the area *710 were by 1985
being run only on a crisis-management basis, that morale amongst social workers in
Blyth Valley, including Mr. Walker, was low, that Mr. Walker expected County
Hall to carry out a reorganisation of social services which would alleviate his
position and that, for these reasons, Mr. Walker, being dedicated, particular and
conscientious about his job, was placed under considerable work pressure and
therefore stress in consequence. In these circumstances was it the council's duty to
take steps to protect Mr. Walker against the risk of psychiatric damage?
There has been little judicial authority on the extent to which an employer owes
to his employees a duty not to cause them psychiatric damage by the volume or
character of the work which the employees are required to perform. It is clear law
that an employer has a duty to provide his employee with a reasonably safe system
of work and to take reasonable steps to protect him from risks which are reasonably
foreseeable. Whereas the law on the extent of this duty has developed almost
exclusively in cases involving physical injury to the employee as distinct from
injury to his mental health, there is no logical reason why risk of psychiatric damage
should be excluded from the scope of an employer's duty of care or from the co-
extensive implied term in the contract of employment. That said, there can be no
doubt that the circumstances in which claims based on such damage are likely to
arise will often give rise to extremely difficult evidential problems of foreseeability
and causation. This is particularly so in the environment of the professions where
the plaintiff may be ambitious and dedicated, determined to succeed in his career in
which he knows the work to be demanding, and may have a measure of discretion as
to how and when and for how long he works, but where the character or volume of
the work given to him eventually drives him to breaking point. Given that the
professional work is intrinsically demanding and stressful, at what point is the
employer's duty to take protective steps engaged? What assumption is he entitled to
make about the employee's resilience, mental toughness and stability of character
given that people of clinically normal personality may have a widely differing
ability to absorb stress attributable to their work?
Mr. Langstaff, on behalf of Mr. Walker, in the course of his conspicuously well-
presented submissions, argues that the increasing pressure of work on Mr. Walker
and generally on his area, as well as the frustrations and discouragement resulting
from the lack of action by his superiors foreseeably exposed him, as a personality of
ordinary robustness, to increasing stress and that, because excessive stress causes
mental illness, a "real risk" of psychiatric injury must at all material times from 1984
have been reasonably foreseeable to the council. He argues that, by analogy with the
relatively small magnitude of risk of injury envisaged as sufficient to give rise to a
duty in such cases as Bolton v. Stone  A.C. 850, the foreseeable risk of
psychiatric injury to Mr. Walker was sufficiently great for the council to be under a
duty to take steps to alleviate his position. Mr. Langstaff has drawn attention to the
fact that, although in Bolton v. Stone the evidence was that the cricket ball had been
hit into the highway only six times in over 30 years and that nobody had previously
suffered injury, a majority of the House of Lords, while concluding that the risk of
injury was properly held by the trial judge to *711 be too small to make it
reasonable for the defendants to act to prevent it, nonetheless expressed the view
that the case was on its facts near the borderline: see per Lord Normond, at p. 861,
per Lord Oaksey, at p. 863 and per Lord Reid, at p. 867.
It is reasonably clear from the authorities that once a duty of care has been
established the standard of care required for the performance of that duty must be
measured against the yardstick of reasonable conduct on the part of a person in the
position of that person who owes the duty. The law does not impose upon him the
duty of an insurer against all injury or damage caused by him, however unlikely or
unexpected and whatever the practical difficulties of guarding against it. It calls for
no more than a reasonable response, what is reasonable being measured by the
nature of the neighbourhood relationship, the magnitude of the risk of injury which
was reasonably foreseeable, the seriousness of the consequence for the person to
whom the duty is owed of the risk eventuating and the cost and impracticability of
preventing the risk. That these are the individual constituents of the yardstick of
reasonable conduct is firmly supported by the observations of Lord Thankerton in
Glasgow Corporation v. Muir  A.C. 448, 454-455:
"In my opinion, it has long been held in Scotland that all that a
person can be bound to foresee are the reasonable and probable
consequences of the failure to take care, judged by the standard of the
ordinary reasonable man ... The court must be careful to place itself
in the position of the person charged with the duty and to consider
what he or she should have reasonably anticipated as a natural and
probable consequence of neglect, and not to give undue weight to the
fact that a distressing accident has happened ..."
To the same effect is the speech of Lord Porter in Bolton v. Stone  A.C.
"It is not enough that the event should be such as can reasonably be
foreseen; the further result that injury is likely to follow must also be
such as a reasonable man would contemplate, before he can be
convicted of actionable negligence. Nor is the remote possibility of
injury occurring enough; there must be sufficient probability to lead a
reasonable man to anticipate it. The existence of some risk is an
ordinary incident of life, even when all due care has been, as it must
And in Paris v. Stepney Borough Council  A.C. 367, 375 Lord Simonds
expressly recognised the potential seriousness of injury as a relevant factor in
assessing the standard of care to be expected of the reasonable employer. In Latimer
v. A.E.C. Ltd.  2 Q.B. 701, 711 Denning L.J. observed: "In every case of
foreseeable risk, it is a matter of balancing the risk against the measures necessary to
eliminate it." And in Overseas Tankship (U.K.) Ltd. v. Miller Steamship Co. Pty.
 1 A.C. 617, 642 Lord Reid said:
"it does not follow that, no matter what the circumstances may be, it
is justifiable to neglect a risk of such a small magnitude. A
reasonable man would only neglect such a risk if he had some valid
reason for *712 doing so, e.g., that it would involve considerable
expense to eliminate the risk. He would weigh the risk against the
difficulty of eliminating it."
The practicability of remedial measures must clearly take into account the
resources and facilities at the disposal of the person or body owing the duty of care
(see per Lord Reid in Herrington v. British Railways Board  A.C. 877, 899)
and the purpose of the activity which has given rise to the risk of injury. The risk
must be balanced "against the end to be achieved:" see per Denning L.J. in Watt v.
Hertfordshire County Council  1 W.L.R. 835, 838.
The approach to reasonable foreseeability of the risk of work-engendered
psychiatric injury is helpfully illustrated by the judgment of Miles C.J. in Gillespie
v. Commonwealth of Australia (1991) 104 A.C.T.R. 1. That case involved a claim
by a former Australian diplomat against the Australian Foreign Affairs and Trade
Department in respect of a mental breakdown which he suffered in consequence of
stresses created by living conditions in Caracas, Venezuela, to where he had been
posted. The plaintiff contended that such stress and therefore his injury would have
been avoided or reduced if the defendant had, before sending him to Caracas,
prepared him by a course of training for the severely stressful conditions likely to be
encountered. Miles C.J. observed, at p. 15:
"In the present case it is not necessary to consider foreseeability with
respect to the existence of a duty of care, because the relationship of
employer and employee itself gives rise to that duty of care.
Foreseeability for present purposes is to be considered only in so far
as the degree of remoteness of the harm sustained by the plaintiff set
the parameters of the steps that a reasonable person in the position of
the defendant would have taken to reduce the risk to the extent that
any 'unnecessary' risk was eliminated. In practical terms this means
that the plaintiff must show that the defendant unreasonably failed to
take such steps as would reduce the risk to what was a reasonable,
that is sociably acceptable, level. It may be that this takes the court
into an area of value judgment for which the inscrutability of a jury
verdict may provide a more appropriate means of expression."
He held that the magnitude of the harm was considerable but that there was not a
high degree of probability that harm of that kind would eventuate. Miles C.J.
addressed himself first to the question whether the factors involved in moving to
such an environment as Caracas would have involved a reasonably foreseeable risk
of breakdown to any ordinary person and secondly to the question whether it was
foreseeable that the plaintiff was more susceptible to psychological harm than an
ordinary member of the diplomatic staff in Caracas: see pp. 17-18. Having held that
some risk of psychiatric harm was reasonably foreseeable, but that the plaintiff's
particular vulnerability was not foreseeable, he concluded that even if the defendant
had taken steps to warn the plaintiff it was not established that he would not have
gone to Caracas or, had he done so, avoided his mental breakdown. Consequently
the plaintiff's claim failed.
*713 In Petch v. Customs and Excise Commissioners  I.C.R. 789 the
plaintiff claimed damages for negligence against the defendants for causing him to
have a mental breakdown by the volume and stressful character of the work he was
required to do. Dillon L.J. approached the issue of breach of duty in these words, at
"... I take the view, in the light of the general circumstances of this
case and the other findings of the judge which I have set out, that,
unless senior management in the defendants' department were aware
or ought to have been aware that the plaintiff was showing signs of
impending breakdown, or were aware or ought to have been aware
that his workload carried a real risk that he would have a breakdown,
then the defendants were not negligent in failing to avert the
breakdown of October 1974."
In the present case, the mental illness and the lasting impairment of his
personality which Mr. Walker sustained in consequence of the 1987 breakdown was
so substantial and damaging that the magnitude of the risk to which he was exposed
must be regarded as relatively large. Moreover, there can, in my judgment, be no
doubt on the evidence that by 1985 at the latest, it was reasonably foreseeable to Mr.
Davison, given the information which I have held that he then had, that by reason of
stress of work there was in general some risk that Mr. Walker might sustain a mental
breakdown of some sort in consequence of his work. That said, how great was the
reasonably-foreseeable risk? Was the risk of incidence of illness so slight as to be in
all the circumstances negligible or was it a materially substantial risk? There is no
evidence that the council had hitherto encountered mental illness in any other of its
area officers or that area officers with heavy workloads, or others in middle
management in the social services, as distinct from field workers, were particularly
vulnerable to stress-induced mental illness. Accordingly, the question is whether it
ought to have been foreseen that Mr. Walker was exposed to a risk of mental illness
materially higher than that which would ordinarily affect a social services middle
manager in his position with a really heavy workload. For, if the foreseeable risk
were not materially greater than that, there would not, as a matter of reasonable
conduct, be any basis upon which the council's duty to act arose.
It is therefore necessary to ask whether, prior to his first breakdown in 1986,
there was anything in Mr. Walker's conduct or any information about his work
which ought to have alerted the council, and in particular Mr. Davison, to the fact
that Mr. Walker was reaching breaking point or at least was subject to a materially
greater than ordinary risk of mental breakdown.
In September 1984 Mr. Walker wrote to the director of social services asking for
one week's additional leave because he had been obliged to put in so much overtime
(130 hours) to cover for one of his team leaders who had been away for several
months due to illness. He wrote:
"During this period, I have worked very hard to carry out my
responsibilities as an area officer, as well as to do the full work of a
team leader, and as a result I have been working under very great
pressure which has been physically and mentally very tiring. In *714
addition to working at this pace, I have worked about 130 hours
extra, and I wish to request one week (37 hours) time off in lieu of
this extra time worked. I accept that in my role as an area officer, I
should be prepared to work additional time when necessary but I feel
that the past four months have been exceptionally heavy. It has been
a time when in addition I have suffered badly from hay fever and
asthma, and been on continual medication for these conditions. I
think that I have had to take 2 1/2 days off ill due to this. An
additional pressure has been the coalminers' strike, and I have had to
find time to deal with many matters in relation to this. I wish to make
it quite clear that I am an officer committed to my work and my usual
work routine as an area officer is to begin work at 8 a.m. each day,
taking only a quarter to half an hour lunch, and finishing between 5
p.m. and 5.30 p.m. The point I am making in requesting a week time
off in lieu of in excess of 100 hours overtime is that I have worked
very hard, I am exhausted, and need a break, without using up too
In the event Mr. Walker was offered two days off on a concessionary basis, but
he felt that this was unacceptable and pressed for a formal grant of one week. This
was turned down, after much delay, on 14 October 1984. Mr. Davison conceded
that, having seen this request for leave, he thought that Mr. Walker must be really
tired, but his instinct was that it was expressed in somewhat exaggerated terms
aimed at getting some extra leave.
I have already referred to the meeting in November 1985 between Mr. Walker
and Mr. Pattie, the two area officers, and Mr. Davison at which Mr. Davison
indicated that the work position was to be improved by a general restructuring
within about two years. Mr. Walker had said that he could not see himself going on
beyond that if nothing were done. Mr. Davison said in evidence that Mr. Walker did
not convey to him that his health was likely to be affected in the meantime. It is,
indeed, difficult to see this assertion by Mr. Walker as anything more than an
indication that if nothing were done within two years the administrative problems
facing him as area manager would make it impossible for him to go on providing
effective management. Even given the knowledge that social work is stressful and
that excessive stress can lead to mental illness, it could hardly be said that this
should have been understood by Mr. Davison as a warning of an enhanced risk of
impending mental breakdown.
By his letter to Mr. Davison of 12 August 1986 on the subject of a replacement
for the team leader George Brown, Mr. Walker wrote:
"It is not possible for me personally to do two jobs as I have in the
past, due to the current pressure on me personally as well as the
increased demands of a childcare team."
Then later in the letter, he wrote:
"I frankly acknowledge to you that I have some bad feelings about
previous cover for absent team leaders, when I feel that my efforts
could have been better rewarded, and Dennis R. knows about *715
that as do you. I have expressed them so that you can be reassured
that those feelings have not hindered my professional judgment in
making these alternative proposals now. I will be quite satisfied with
this proposal if it is accepted, and accept that it will mean a heavier
time for me -- but I at least feel I will be able to cope with it
personally, professionally and managerially."
This letter is an entirely coherent and balanced presentation suggesting particular
solutions to a particular staffing problem. I consider that, even against the
background of inadequate support for Mr. Walker of which Mr. Davison was, as I
have held, well aware, there was nothing in this letter to suggest that Mr. Walker
was approaching breaking point or seriously at risk of mental illness. Mr. Davison
said in evidence that there was nothing that had given him any clue that Mr. Walker
was under such stress that he could not mentally cope. If he had appreciated that Mr.
Walker was close to going under there were things that he could and would have
done about it. He saw Mr. Walker's problem as essentially a manpower problem
rather than a personal problem. I accept that it never occurred to Mr. Davison that
Mr. Walker was in real danger of mental illness.
I must now refer briefly to the expert medical evidence. Both Professor Sims,
called on behalf of Mr. Walker, and Dr. Wood, called on behalf of the council,
accepted that Mr. Walker had been brought down by the impact of the work on his
personality. However, their views differed sharply as to why his illness had been
triggered. Professor Sims, who had seen and interviewed Mr. Walker at length on
two occasions in February 1989 and once in January 1993, was firmly of the view
that Mr. Walker had a personality which was "normal" in the sense that he suffered
from no personality abnormality. In particular none of his personality characteristics
were more or less than one would find in 95 per cent. of the population. Professor
Sims found no evidence of underlying insecurity before his first illness or of undue
sensitivity to the views or criticisms of others. He had very considerable reserves of
character and resilience. What had broken him was (i) the mounting but quite
uncontrollable workload; (ii) his feelings of responsibility for the young children
under the care of his field teams; (iii) his feelings of responsibility for the over-
worked field teams in his area; and (iv) a feeling of frustrated helplessness because
he found himself in a deteriorating situation which he was powerless to control.
Professor Sims detected neither excessive rigidity nor obsessionality in his
interviews or in the manner in which Mr. Walker gave his evidence. Although Mr.
Walker had high standards and was much involved in church affairs, he was not a
rigid religious devotee.
Dr. Wood considered that Mr. Walker, although of normal personality, was
towards the very rigid end of the personality scale. He was extremely conscientious,
but lacked flexibility, the ability to dodge and weave his way round problems in a
changing and difficult situation. Having reached 50, he was unable to develop a
sufficiently flexible response to the situation. He was somewhat pedantic. His strong
feeling that the rural areas were better resourced than his own and his pursuit of that
theme with those to whom he was answerable was merely the consequence of his
*716 tendency to project on to others the blame for his own inability to adjust to the
work. The suggestion that increasing volumes of work was a cause of his illness was
to be rejected since his evidence was that he did not usually work at home in the
evening or at the weekends. Dr. Wood rejected Professor Sims's explanation of Mr.
Walker's breakdown as a state of frustrated helplessness. In that condition Dr. Wood
would have expected someone to attempt to work their way out of an impossible
situation by working into the weekends. That was not what Mr. Walker did.
Mr. Langstaff, on behalf of Mr. Walker, submits that the fact that Mr. Walker
was a normal personality and was in the end unable to cope shows that the workload
was, in the circumstances, excessive for an ordinary personality and therefore ought
more readily to have been perceived to be excessive by Mr. Davison.
During the period from November 1985 to his first illness Mr. Walker would
usually meet Mr. Davison at meetings when others would have been present about
once a month and would discuss specific matters by telephone perhaps over every
two weeks. They were thus in reasonably close contact. Mr. Davison was himself a
social worker of roughly similar experience to Mr. Walker and if Mr. Walker had
indicated in any way that he was subject to material risk of mental breakdown it is
more probable than not that Mr. Davison would have detected it.
I find that Mr. Walker was unable to cope with the work and sustained his first
breakdown because, although Mr. Walker's personality was normal, he was driven
to the point of despair by the council's failure to provide him with what he
considered to be sufficient resources to satisfy the urgent needs of the people and
particularly the children of his area for social services. The stress created by his
determination to provide the required services without unduly overloading his field
teams and by his inability to persuade the council to support him placed him, as
Professor Parsloe said, in a position where he was trapped between the two
problems. Whether his inability to withstand that stress was attributable to a degree
of inflexibility or rigidity in his character which was greater than the norm is, in my
judgment, beside the point. On the whole of the evidence I am not persuaded that
before the first illness Mr. Davison ought to have appreciated that Mr. Walker was
not only dissatisfied and frustrated because his area could not provide the service,
but was at materially greater risk of stress-induced mental illness than an area
manager with a busy area would normally be. Mr. Ride, who was a very experienced
team leader, thought that he would have been able to do Mr. Walker's job of area
manager, although, for reasons unconnected with the workload, he would not have
considered taking it. He was then 58. That certainly does not suggest that the work
appeared to him to be unmanageable or likely to endanger his health. He had a
closer acquaintance with the problems of the area than Mr. Davison.
I therefore consider that before the 1986 illness it was not reasonably foreseeable
to the council that the workload to which Mr. Walker was exposed gave rise to a
material risk of mental illness.
*717 Was the plaintiff's second illness caused by a breach of the council's duty
In the course of the discussion which Mr. Walker had with Mr. Davison shortly
before he returned to work, at the beginning of March 1987, Mr. Walker requested
that Blyth Valley area should be split in two with two area managers. This was
rejected by Mr. Davison. That was in the context of a discussion in relation to Mr.
Walker's ability to return to his old job after his illness. He had been advised by Dr.
Stephens not to go back to the same level of responsibility as before. It was in
response to this request that Mr. Davison offered Mr. Robinson's help to assist Mr.
Walker in the Blyth office. It was Mr. Walker's understanding, and I find that Mr.
Davison gave him to believe, that Mr. Robinson's assistance would be available for
as long as Mr. Walker felt he needed his support. That offer by Mr. Davison is only
explicable on the basis that Mr. Walker told him that he would not be able to cope
with the whole Blyth Valley area without help. The area would not be split and so
additional help would be needed. And so it was that on 4 March 1987 Mr. Walker
returned to work in a job in which the pressures which built up in 1986 had already
driven him to breaking point and which he had told Mr. Davison he could not
manage at the outset unless somebody else helped him in the Blyth office.
In those circumstances I have no doubt that it ought to have been foreseen by
Mr. Davison that if Mr. Walker was again exposed to the same workload as he had
been handling at the time of his breakdown in October 1986 there was a risk that he
would once again succumb to mental illness and that such illness would be likely to
end his career as an area manager and perhaps his career in the social services. Mr.
Davison did not ask for or commission any medical report on Mr. Walker. He
simply had Mr. Walker's sick note. He said he assumed that Mr. Walker was once
again fully fit for work. In my judgment, he should have appreciated that Mr.
Walker was a man distinctly more vulnerable to psychiatric damage than he had
appeared to be in 1986. When Mr. Robinson left the Blyth office within a month of
Mr. Walker's return to work it should have been appreciated by Mr. Davison that
there was now a significantly greater risk of injury to Mr. Walker's health unless the
workload could be substantially reduced.
Mr. Davison said, which I accept, that he believed that when Mr. Walker
returned from sick leave he was fit to resume his job. He told Mr. Walker to contact
County Hall whenever he felt the need and not to get too involved with the child
In the event, although, as I have said, the burden of the work in the Blyth Valley
area increased between March and July 1987, there was no staff increase and Mr.
Walker was left to cope. In July he set up a system of prioritisation of work in order
to take some of the pressure off his field workers and team leaders. In the event the
area was able to keep abreast of child abuse cases, but the backlog in other
important areas of the work had to be allowed to build up. Mr. Davison said he did
not know why Mr. Walker did not adopt such a system back in 1985. Indeed he
went so far as to say that it would be astonishing if an area were properly managed
*718 without a system of priorities. His evidence on priorities was not entirely
convincing. At the same time as he was saying that a system ought to have been
introduced, he also said that he would expect to be informed if such a scheme was
proposed for there might be political implications if things went wrong. The
department, according to Mr. Davison, let it be known that if that happened it would
stand behind the area officers. I infer that the department did nothing to encourage
prioritisation by area officers as a systematic response to increasing workload
because it was seen as a political hazard. It gave no lead in this direction, nor in any
other way made recommendations as to how the deluge of work should be
In my judgment, once Mr. Robinson was not fully available to assist Mr.
Walker, it was quite likely, if not inevitable, that he would again break down. I find
that the failure to relieve Mr. Robinson of sufficient of his other duties to enable him
to provide continuous and effective back-up for Mr. Walker was fatal to Mr.
Walker's ability to survive. The evidence on the availability of Mr. Robinson was
very limited. He certainly had functions at County Hall as principal field work
officer. There is, however, no evidence as to what those functions were or that those
functions could not be redistributed to other staff or simply subjected to
prioritisation at County Hall and therefore not wholly performed. He had certainly
undertaken a substantial amount of work at Blyth Valley during Mr. Walker's
absence and his failure to continue to make himself fully available to Mr. Walker
can, I infer, only have been either because he was instructed by Mr. Davison or
others at County Hall to concentrate on his own functions to the exclusion of giving
assistance at Blyth Valley or, at its lowest, because he was not instructed to give
priority to Blyth Valley work. It is clear that the approach adopted at County Hall
was that if Mr. Walker was physically present there was no need for anybody to be
continuously available or available for a substantial part of the time to assist him.
In the result, it is established that by April 1987 Mr. Walker was exposed in his
job to a reasonably foreseeable risk to his mental health which materially exceeded
the risk to be anticipated in the ordinary course of an area officer's job. Was it in
those circumstances reasonable for the council to take action to alleviate or remove
that risk? In my view, the only course which would have had a reasonable
probability of preventing another mental breakdown was the provision of continuous
or at least substantial back-up for Mr. Walker in the Blyth office from Mr. Robinson
or somebody of equal experience who could in effect have acted as Mr. Walker's
deputy. However, in deciding what was reasonable conduct I must have regard to
the acute staffing problems which at the relevant time confronted the council.
By April 1987 the department's 1987 to 1988 budget had been approved by the
social services committee and by the council. It involved the creation of two
additional social service posts for level III social workers and that two posts hitherto
graded at level II were to be upgraded to level III. The new posts were to specialise
on work with abused children. These were obviously to be senior social workers as
distinct from area officers, assistant area officers or team leaders. Apart from the
budgetary *719 provision for these posts there was no provision in the department's
budget for 1987 to 1988 for paying for additional staff. In the event, the two
additional social workers were only to be taken on with effect from 1 July 1987. It
follows that if additional assistance was to be provided to Mr. Walker in March
1987 it would have to be from the existing establishment. The evidence before me
established beyond doubt that the department as a whole was in general
understaffed, particularly having regard to the demands of the childcare service. In
the period from 1985 the department's expenditure had been very tightly controlled
and the 1986 to 1987 council budget had been a "standstill budget." Accordingly I
infer that in March 1987 there was no available surplus staff capacity to assist Mr.
Walker. It was therefore only by postponing or rejecting by prioritisation other work
demands that anybody of sufficient ability and experience would be able to assist
Mr. Walker. Mr. Langstaff argued that staff ought to have been moved from the
Alnwick/Berwick area which was rural and far less beset with childcare problems
than Blyth Valley. He relied in support of this argument on the fact that after Mr.
Walker had suffered his second illness breakdown, one team leader, Mr. Anderson,
had been transferred to Blyth Valley as acting area officer, that, as Mr. Davison
conceded, this transfer did not involve additional resources or budgetary provision
and that, accordingly, it did not have to be approved by the social services
committee. It was only a temporary expedient. Mr. Davison, however, stated that it
was not appropriate to move anyone from the rural area on a permanent basis as an
assistant to Mr. Walker. That would, as he put it, have "considerable resource
implications." He may have had in mind in this context that the existing Blyth office
would not have been large enough to accommodate an assistant for he had already
said that it was not large enough to accommodate another area officer. Secondly, he
said that permanently to remove Mr. Anderson from Alnwick would destabilise that
area in order to take the uncertain opportunity of stabilising Blyth Valley. That
would have had to be decided by the committee. It is not unlikely that in that event
the committee would have had to deal with questions of competitive demands for
social work from different areas of the council's territory.
I therefore conclude that the council could only have provided Mr. Walker with
substantial assistance in March 1987 at the expense of some disruption of other
social work. It is impossible on the evidence which I have heard to form any clear
view on the extent to which work in the Alnwick area would have been disrupted if
Mr. Anderson or some other team leader had been moved down to Blyth Valley or
on the extent to which work at County Hall would have been disrupted if Mr.
Robinson had been seconded to Blyth Valley on a sufficiently available basis, but I
infer that the extent of disruption would have been such as to preclude the council
from providing at least some services which it would otherwise have been able to
In deciding whether the council was acting reasonably in failing to provide
additional staffing to Mr. Walker it is clearly right to take into account and to attach
some weight to the fact and extent of that disruption. However, Mr. Hawkesworth,
on behalf of the council, contends that, because the extent to which the council
provided social *720 services to the public in particular areas was a discretionary or
policy decision in respect of the exercise of statutory powers, as distinct from an
operational one, if the secondment of additional staff to assist Mr. Walker involved
withdrawal of services, the council's policy decision not to disrupt its services
merely to enable it to support Mr. Walker could not amount to a breach of duty of
care to Mr. Walker. Mr. Hawkesworth relies in particular on the developing
distinction between policy decisions and operational decisions enunciated by Lord
Wilberforce in Anns v. Merton London Borough Council  A.C. 728, 753-758,
and further explored by the Court of Appeal in Lavis v. Kent County Council (1992)
90 L.G.R. 416. In other words, Mr. Hawkesworth contends, the court is shut out
from characterising as unreasonable conduct on the part of a public body which is
the consequence of a decision by that body in a policy-making area to carry out its
statutory powers in a particular way or to a particular extent.
It is to be observed that both Anns and Lavis v. Kent County Council were cases
which involved claims by plaintiffs with whom the defendant local authority had a
casual neighbourhood relationship and which were based on the allegation that the
defendant had carried out or failed to carry out a statutory power which existed
within the context of legislation directed to the protection of the public. In Anns it
was the building occupiers and in Lavis the road user. In neither case was there a
contractual relation overlaying the duty of care in tort, as there is in this case.
Further, the issue addressed by Lord Wilberforce when he came to consider the
distinction between policy and operational decisions in Anns was expressed in these
words, at p. 754:
"The problem which this type of action creates, is to define the
circumstances in which the law should impose, over and above, or
perhaps alongside, these public law powers and duties, a duty in
private law towards individuals such that they may sue for damages
in a civil court. It is in this context that the distinction sought to be
drawn between duties and mere powers has to be examined."
Lord Wilberforce was then exploring the territory which lies between the public
law powers and duties of a statutory body and the private law duties which might be
owed by such a body to a member of the public whose relationship with that body
was contemplated by the statutory sources of the public law powers and duties.
Neither counsel was able to refer me to any decided case in which it had been
suggested that in the context of a contract of employment between a statutory body
and an employee the body could rely on considerations of policy to justify a
decision which caused damage or injury to the employee to the effect that the court
was, as a matter of law, precluded from evaluating the reasonableness of the
statutory body's conduct.
In my judgment the policy decision/operational decision dichotomy has no more
part to play in the context of the duty of care to an employee with whom a statutory
body has a contract of employment than it would have in the context of any other
contract made by such a body. Just as it would be no defence to a claim for non-
performance of a contract for the *721 sale of goods that the local authority had
resolved as a matter of policy that the use of its scarce resources for the performance
of the contract was inexpedient, so it would be no defence to a claim for breach of
the implied term in a contract of employment that the employer would exercise
reasonable care for the safety of his employee that its failure to do so was the result
of a policy decision on the exercise of its statutory powers. Since the scope of the
duty of care owed to an employee to take reasonable steps to provide a safe system
of work is co-extensive with the scope of the implied term as to the employee's
safety in the contract of employment, see for example, Johnstone v. Bloomsbury
Health Authority  I.C.R. 269, to introduce a ring fence round policy decisions
giving rise to unsafe systems of work for the purposes of claims in tort which was
not available to the defendant statutory body in defences to claims in contract would
be to implant into employment law a disparity which, in my judgment, would be
wholly wrong in principle. Whereas the mutual intention to be imputed to the parties
to a contract of employment with a public body could be expected to qualify the
employer's duty of safety by requiring the employer to do no more than take
reasonable steps to procure the employee's safety at work, it is inconceivable that
such mutual intention would require the employer to take only such steps for the
employee's safety as political expediency from time to time permitted if the exercise
of statutory powers were involved. In the absence of authority to the contrary or of
compelling common law principle, there can be no sustainable basis for subjecting
the duty of care in tort to such a qualification.
That said, the duty of an employer public body, whether in contract or tort, to
provide a safe system of work is, as I have said, a duty only to do what is
reasonable, and in many cases it may be necessary to take into account decisions
which are within the policy-making area and the reasons for those decisions in order
to test whether the body's conduct has been reasonable. In that exercise there can be
no basis for treating the public body differently in principle from any other
commercial employer, although there would have to be taken into account
considerations such as budgetary constraints and perhaps lack of flexibility of
decision-taking which might not arise with a commercial employer.
Having regard to the reasonably foreseeable size of the risk of repetition of Mr.
Walker's illness if his duties were not alleviated by effective additional assistance
and to the reasonably foreseeable gravity of the mental breakdown which might
result if nothing were done, I have come to the conclusion that the standard of care
to be expected of a reasonable local authority required that in March 1987 such
additional assistance should be provided, if not on a permanent basis, at least until
restructuring of the social services had been effected and the workload on Mr.
Walker thereby permanently reduced. That measure of additional assistance ought to
have been provided notwithstanding that it could be expected to have some
disruptive effect on the council's provision of services to the public. When Mr.
Walker returned from his first illness the council had to decide whether it was
prepared to go on employing him in spite of the fact that he had made it sufficiently
clear that he must have effective additional help if he was to continue at Blyth
Valley. It chose to *722 continue to employ him, but provided no effective help. In
so doing it was, in my judgment, acting unreasonably and therefore in breach of its
duty of care.
I understand it to be accepted that, if there was breach of duty, damage was
caused by that breach. However, in view of the fact that I have decided this case on
the second breakdown alone, it is right to add that I am satisfied on the evidence
that, had the further assistance been provided to Mr. Walker, his second breakdown
would probably not have occurred. In the event, there will be judgment for the
plaintiff on liability with damages yet to be assessed.
Judgment for plaintiff with costs. Leave to appeal.