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Suing clergy, and others, for negligent advice

By William Spaul - posted Monday, 12 March 2018

Helping others is something that religionists, atheists, and agnostics agree is a good thing. This has been common to people in nearly all parts of the world at nearly all times.

The principle is also important in healer-sufferer relationships. In Care of the Psyche: A History of Psychological Healing, S.W. Jackson quotes a physician who wrote "There are two kinds of physician – those who work for love, and those who work for their own profit … The true and just physician is known by his unfailing love for his neighbour".

Jackson notes the importance of showing compassion, unconditional positive regard, and enabling the sufferer "to have their plight empathetically appreciated" through attentive listening. These skills are simply applications of the principle.


Many in wealthier countries live lonely, unfulfilling lives, or are addicted to substances or things they don't need. Lacking a strong underlying meaning or purpose, and unconvinced by conventional religion, they may become suicidal when things go wrong.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children under five in poorer countries die, every day, of mostly preventable causes. If more people in wealthier countries turned their minds to this fact more often and did something about it, millions of lives would be saved and greatly improved, in both first and third world countries.

However, the promotion, prescription or preaching of a narrow range of options often gets in the way.

A mental health professional might one day be sued if a patient alleges damage from unnecessarily prolonged depression, or from a suicide attempt, which would have been prevented had they been encouraged to seek meaning through altruism. My thesis analyses how failure to suggest a potentially useful option to a patient or client could be demonstrated to have caused damage.

On the whole, unlike the clergy in the Nally case, Australian clergy do not provide individual counselling for mental health issues, unless they are also mental health professionals.

It would be hard to persuade a court to impose a relevant duty of care on clergy for words uttered during the course of, for example, sermons. On the other hand, depressed people may be suffering meaninglessness and have impaired judgment. By purporting to offer ultimate religious meaning, clergy may induce a depressed person listening to a sermon to focus on religious activities or concepts as a way of solving their depression, or other problems.


As a result, the person may be diverted or delayed from seeking professional help, or exploring other beneficial measures, such as altruism. The person's vulnerability would thereby be increased. Decisions of the High Court suggest that where a plaintiff's vulnerability is increased, due to a defendant's conduct, this can be an important factor in helping to establish a duty of care.

Lawyers interested in expanding their revenue may be tempted to explore this possibility, if consulted by a client alleging they had been diverted from more useful options by clergy, and that they suffered damage as a result.

Unfortunately, many people, including Kenneth Nally, find the well of conventional religion to be dry, and suffer as a result. Seek and you will find? Be kind and you'll find. Or, as Dostoyevsky suggested in The Brothers Karamazov, give and you'll believe.

Altruism is not a panacea and can have side effects such as burn-out or financial cost. Anyone with any sort of problem should consider obtaining competent professional help tailored to their own circumstances. Anyone taking medication should not stop or reduce it without discussion with a doctor.

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About the Author

William Spaul is a lawyer with an interest in legal and moral philosophy.

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All articles by William Spaul

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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