As chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Backbench Justice Group, I hosted a meeting on the Government’s Civil Liability Bill ahead of its return to the Commons which if passed, I believe, would be detrimental for access to justice.
On the face of it, the Civil Liability Bill’s target is to reduce the number or fraudulent whiplash claims which the Government believe represents an ‘out of control compensation culture’.
However, the whiplash case has been used as a smokescreen to mask a more insidious measure. The Bill, as it currently stands, will take away the right to free legal advice for hundreds of thousands of people injured at work or on the roads every year whose claims have nothing to do with whiplash.
Although not on the face of the Bill, the proposed increase in the small claims limit would see the limit raised from £1,000 to £5,000 for road traffic accident-related personal injury claims and from £1,000 to £2,000 for other personal injury claims.
Below these proposed limits, the injured claimant will have to either fight their case themselves or pay for a lawyer out of compensation meant to be for their injuries and their losses. This means that even if a claimant’s case is successful they will generally not be able to recover their legal costs and therefore not receive the full compensation they need to secure their immediate future.
Around 40% of cases are below these proposed limits which would mean leaving up to 500,000 people a year without the free legal cover they are entitled to. I believe this is an active assault on our access to justice.
Firstly, this undermines the longstanding legal principle that the guilty party pays and thus unfairly leaves victims liable for greater legal costs.
Secondly, the idea that people will have to represent themselves is absurd. The pain and trauma of an accident will make it extremely unlikely that the victim will then take on the further stress and burden of pursuing a claim without legal representation.
This is backed up by a survey conducted by Unison which found that 63% of members surveyed stated that they “would not have proceeded or been at all confident to bring their claim without legal representation”.
Even if defendants were to pursue their case without representation, the already overburdened civil court system would likely be unable to cope with the number of injured people attempting to run their own cases. Despite this, the Government believes that 75% of cases will be run by injured people on their own, without legal support.
However, when similar fees were introduced for Employment Tribunals there was a 90% decline in the number of workers pursuing a claim and the fees were later ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. This leads me to believe a similar decline in cases would occur should this Bill pass.
All in all, the Government seems to believe these measures will be combating an ‘out of control compensation culture’ but I feel this is unfair; is it not the responsibility of the insurers themselves to combat fraudulent claims? If they think a claim is fraudulent then they shouldn’t pay out, it’s as simple as that.
However, it would seem that instead of taking responsibility and resolving this themselves the insurance industry are in cahoots with the Tories to hit out against all injury victims, including those at work which whiplash has nothing to do with.
But for the insurance industry there is good reason to do this. An impact assessment on the Bill suggests the increase in the small claims limit means insurers will get an extra £1.3 billion a year. This figure includes saving £6m worth of pay-outs to the NHS and £140m worth of pay-outs to the Treasury every year.
The recent Justice Committee Report on this matter expressed deep misgivings about where the Government is going with this Bill. It stated that the Government had not set out a compelling case for a further increase in the limits and that the Committee is extremely concerned that any rise could seriously impede access to justice.
I wholeheartedly agree with these conclusions and adamantly oppose the Government’s plans. In our Backbench Justice Group meeting, it was heartening to see the strength of opposition to these proposals from the Shadow Justice team, Thompsons Solicitors and Usdaw.
I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to postpone their current plans for raising the small claims limit. We now need to win over support across the House to draw further attention to these damaging proposals.
If they pass, this will severely degrade access to justice and will be direct evidence of the Tories favouring the few in the insurance industry over the many who rely on these measures to receive justice.