On Tuesday the Civil Liability Bill will enter its remaining stages in the House of Commons. My Labour colleagues and I have continually warned that the implementation of the Government’s package of measures, formulated under the auspices of tackling whiplash fraud and reforming personal injury claims, will leave deep and long-lasting damage on access to justice.
The Bill, which passed Committee stage in September with minor amendments, will see widespread changes to damages for whiplash injuries by replacing the established Judicial Studies Board guidelines with a rigid tariff system - injured claimants could receive up to 87% less.
The Bill is coupled with increases in the small claims limit from £1,000 to £2,000 in all personal injury claims and from £1,000 to £5,000 in all road traffic injury cases, meaning thousands of injured people could fall out of scope for free legal advice and representation and could be potentially denied justice. This is because costs are not recoverable from the losing party in the small claims court so injured people will either have to pay their legal costs themselves, which can often be expensive, or forego legal assistance altogether.
Whilst genuinely injured people will find it harder to access justice, insurance companies are predicted to save £1.3 billion a year because of these changes. Ahead of the debate at Second Reading, both in correspondence to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee and in response to the Committee’s report on the small claims limit, the Government pledged to bring in an amendment that would mean these savings are passed on to customers.
Yet what we were presented with was little more than a fudge. The Government came forward with an amendment which merely requires insurers to supply information about the effect of the enactment of the legislation, rather than any onus on them to pass on the billions worth of savings. It has become increasingly apparently that this Bill is solely for the benefit of the insurance industry.
The changes made at committee stage have done nothing to address the very real worry that the combined implementation of the Civil Liability Bill and forthcoming adjustments to the small claims limit is predicted to see around 350,000 injured people put off pursuing a claim for an injury that was not their fault. Access to justice should not be considered a luxury yet with the introduction of this package of measures that is precisely what it is fast becoming.
We should be working to strengthen access to justice for people up and down the country, not curbing it. All these measures do is prop up the balance sheets for the insurance companies, yet consumers will see little to no change in their premiums and it will become more and more difficult to pursue a claim and to access justice.
The Bill and its appendages are flawed and damaging. The Tories abysmal record on access to justice will only get worse and the lessons of LASPO or employment tribunal fees have not been heeded. It is becoming patently obvious that the enactment of this Bill will see access to justice eviscerated for many. It is surely time to think again.