Apologies can help victims move on.
Recent events have brought the issue into sharp focus. We have seen in the Grenfell Tower aftermath how vital it is to show compassion in the wake of disaster. It is important for those who have suffered and those in positions of responsibility.
Elsewhere, Faizah Shaheen, who is suing Thomson Holidays because she was detained at Doncaster airport for reading a book about Syria on the return from her honeymoon, simply states: “all I want is an apology for being treated this way.” The experience has damaged the memories of her honeymoon.
The final inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, in which a jury delivered a verdict of unlawful killing in April 2016, brought a degree of closure to victim’s families. This was finally accompanied by a range of apologies from those deemed responsible.
That it took over 25 years to achieve says something about the importance of acting promptly. While circumstances were very different and lines of responsibility much clearer, the response of Alton Towers in 2015 following a collision on one of its attractions was quick, visible and clear. An apology from its CEO was delivered within 24 hours of the incident.
Contrast this with the reticence of Thomas Cook in the same year to apologise for a tragedy that took place some nine years earlier. The response of the victim’s family in these circumstances (and the accompanying negative media coverage) demonstrates the distressing impact such an approach can bring.
In the NHS, the importance of saying sorry is recognised as vital for the patient, their family and carers, as well as to support learning and improve safety. The NHS Litigation Authority has published guidance which includes an answer to the question: Is an apology the same as an admission of liability? “Saying sorry is not an admission of legal liability: it is the right thing to do.”
Even so, the Royal College of Nursing felt it important to codify its advice in this area in 2014, given a reluctance among nurses to say sorry for fear of the consequences.
A range of independent studies also supports this view.
Prue Vines, working at the University of Strathclyde in 2006, examined the role of apologies and civil liability in England, Scotland and Wales. A section of her report was devoted to the ‘social role’ of an apology and its importance as a ‘healing function’.
In December 2015, the International Center for Transitional Justice in its report More Than Words, sought to define apologies as a form of reparation.
Two years earlier members of the Scottish parliament backed plans to provide victims of crimes with face-to-face apologies from offenders. An article in The Scotsman at the time quoted a number of interested parties and the benefits it would bring to victims.
All the evidence points to the power of an apology but this must be delivered in a meaningful and heartfelt way. Empty words or the use of an apology as a tactical device is easily identified and may have adverse reputational implications.
As Prue Vines points out in her report an apology has ‘to acknowledge fault rather than merely express regret’. If it can be accompanied by tangible action as well, all the better.
While concerned with cases of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, this article from Canada reinforces the need for sincerity when apologising.