Sunday, 10 November 2013

The thin skull rule

One of the things in life which is most likely to push my buttons instantaneously is the subject of bullying. It upsets me to see it, and excuses made for it upset me even more. I don't think it's anything to do with the usual bullied-at-school background either; I'm the sort of person who (for better or worse) has very hard lines set about right and wrong - and bullying is always wrong.

A situation a couple of years back came up in conversation twice recently and prompted me to flesh it out into a post. It also touches on themes addressed in Divided we Fall, of those who consider they have the right to judge who does or doesn't have any particular condition.

The situation revolved around a group of people picking on one individual. There had been some run up to the incident but it escalated beyond all sane proportions and became downright nasty. It never ceases to amaze me how "brave" people can suddenly be safely behind a modem and keyboard with ten others backing their view up.

The point most relevant to the post however is that when the individual was revealed to have a particular mental and behavioural disorder, it was unanimously decided on the spot that this was a "convenient excuse" and therefore couldn't be true and the bullying not only continued but intensified.

The phenomenon of cyber bullying achieved national attention in the UK when it formed part of the campaign for 2013's Red Nose Day. The subject highlighted in particular was those who tragically take their own lives as a result of relentless bullying. Simon's story was bravely reiterated by his family as a part of the awareness campaign, but the picture board of young people who came to the same last resort at the end of the video is probably the most horrifying part of all.

What links the two was the oft-seen aftermath when people discover less then palatable details later on and use the excuse "Oh, but I didn't know!" to attempt to justify their words or actions.

Some may think this harsh but I'm going to take this opportunity to cut right through the rubbish of that phrase. What they mean by "I didn't know" is "I didn't think about what I was saying because I didn't care what the other person might have felt in response".

How exceedingly unimpressive.

(A moment's light relief - let's play "Can you see it yet?" - image from

Mental illness and behavioural disorders share the common problem of all invisible illnesses - they cannot be seen. You cannot know by looking at an individual whether their diagnosis is correct, incorrect or a complete fabrication. It is also impossible to tell purely from what a person says or (perhaps more pertinently in this context) what they write.

I'm not discounting the scenario that behavioural disorders of all shapes and sizes are used as an excuse for what is just plain bad behaviour, however I don't believe that knowledge of that potential inaccuracy should equate to automatic assumptions across the board.

Unless you are that individual's treating doctor or specialist you are not imbued with any right whatsoever to judge their physical or mental health. Even if you have the same condition, you are not the automatic authority. There is no such thing as illness royalty and no health government - there is no individual or body of individuals who own the authority to judge others by their own convenience or expectations. I know we've all been guilty of this at some point, but that fact doesn't render the truth any less real.

You're still wondering about that title, aren't you?

(The beautiful Royal Courts of Justice, London UK)

In the criminal law of England and Wales, the thin or eggshell skull rule exists. The rule holds that a person who engages in any activity which causes another individual harm is liable for all the harm caused, even if the victim has any pre-existing conditions or vulnerabilities which mean an unusual level of harm is inflicted, including fatality.

A short and hypothetical scenario applying the rule: you hit somebody on the head and they had a peculiarly thin skull and died as a direct consequence of the blow you inflicted. Ignorance of the abnormality would not absolve you of liability for their death. It isn't murder because it lacks "malice aforethought" (premeditation), but criminal liability for the death is nonetheless recognised and would be upheld.

The general maxim? A quote directly from the Lord Justice Lawton in the conclusion of R v Blaue (1975) sums it up perfectly - "You must take the victim as you find them."

You very rarely know enough about another person to be absolutely certain of the whole truth of their circumstances. Until you do, exercise a little decency and don't be the person who stands in the cold afterwards saying "I didn't know".

Wishing you all many spoons xx