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The Scottish Parliament has passed an act, The Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016, which in certain civil proceedings, rules out the previous making of an apology as admitting, or contributing as evidence of, liability for what happened. The consequences are that services and individuals can in many circumstances be freed up to apologise sincerely for a mistake, without fear of further legal consequences of apologising.
The success of this legislation being passed has been welcomed across the board. The Scottish Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs stated that:
“This Bill sends an important message about the value of apologies in our society and with it we want to change attitudes in Scotland.”
We all know mistakes happen, that is a fact of life and indeed some actions taken can have serious, even tragic consequences. It is how we deal with such situations that makes the difference, and a sincere apology can show empathy and restore damaged relationships. While it cannot undo what has already been done, a sincere and effective apology can provide some redress for anyone who has been wronged and this can provide significant comfort to those affected or their loved ones.
CORE, an independent mediation service welcomed the Act, saying it had:
“The potential to change our culture if we choose to work hard with the idea and motivation behind the Act... The question of how effective the Act will be remains to be seen.”
CORE went on to emphasise the need for training and education in awareness of how to use this legislation, and in what circumstances it applies. However, the agency welcomed it overall, saying that a culture of apologising in Scotland helps those who have been harmed and those who are responsible for the harm that has been caused. They saw a need for all relevant agencies to help to make it work.
The Scottish Parliament has certainly worked well to bring this Act to reality. It received virtually unanimous cross-party support, which consensus is rare.
I would endorse the usefulness which apologies are said to have. In my previous work, I often had to independently investigate complaints about services. Frequently, a main grievance was that the service had not acknowledged that they had made a mistake, and the complainant feared that other people might be subject to the same dangers complained about. The complainant acknowledged that we can all make mistakes, but often they wanted only for the service to admit its mistake and a reassurance that steps would be taken to prevent its recurrence.
In the absence of these reassurances, the person who was wronged took the additional step of raising a formal complaint. But this expensive and time-consuming process could easily in many cases have been avoided if the service had promptly acknowledged its errors, and shown clearly that it intended to work to prevent a recurrence. Also, such an apology would often bring peace of mind and closure more quickly to the person concerned.
So the freedom, in some circumstances, to apologise is to be welcomed as enabling a caring act which has the potential to reduce conflict and to bring peace of mind in a troublesome situation.
The Act has exceptions: it does not apply in certain situations, notably in criminal proceedings. Also, some professional staff regulatory bodies are to have exception measures introduced by regulations. Professional legal advice, and training should be obtained by services to whom the Act may be relevant. This will enable the legislation to be used proactively, allowing people to apologise and provide reassurance instead of legal defences being thrown up after a mistake has been made. It promises a more personal and effective interaction between services and the people who use these services.
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