Wikiversity Law Reports/Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire

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Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire
[1991] 4 All ER 907, [1992] AC 310, [1991] UKHL 5, [1992] 1 AC 310
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This case established the criteria for determining liability for nervous shock (psychiatric injury).

House of Lords


This was a complex set of cases focussed on the aftermath of a disaster involving the death of ninety six people at a match in the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield in 1989. The defendant police force (South Yorkshire) had been negligent in the control of the crowd by directing an unsafe number of people into one area of the stadium, causing the deaths as well as more than seven hundred people injured. There were live broadcasts of the disaster together with numerous broadcasts of scenes by news services.

In total there were sixteen claims for nervous shock resulting in psychiatric injury brought against the defendant police force, represented by the Chief Constable, of which ten were successful. The defendant appealed the findings of nine cases and the unsuccessful claimants also appealed. The Court of Appeal found for the defendant in all of the claims.

Subsequently, ten appeals were made to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, including parents, siblings, a grandparent and a fiancé of victims. Two of these claimants had seen the disaster unfolding but were in different parts of the stadium. Some had watched the television broadcasts, whilst others had simply heard about it. A few had been to identify the bodies of family members at the makeshift mortuary.


The appeals were dismissed, with Lord Oliver distinguishing between primary and secondary victims. A primary victim is mediately or immediately involved as a participant whilst a secondary victim is a passive witness of injury to others. None of the claimants had been in the physical zone of danger i.e. the part of the stadium where the disaster took place, thus they were all classed as secondary victims.

The Lords set out criteria (commonly referred to as the "Alcock criteria") for establishing whether a secondary victim could claim for psychiatric harm:

  1. A close tie of love and affection to a primary victim;
  2. Witness the event with their own "unaided" senses;
  3. Proximity to the event or its immediate aftermath;
  4. The psychiatric injury must be caused by a shocking event.

In particular, Lord Ackner defined "shock" as:

...the sudden appreciation by sight or sound of a horrifying event, which violently agitates the mind. It has yet to include psychiatric illness caused by the accumulation over a period of time of more gradual assaults on the nervous system.