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1 May 2008 / personal-injury-news
John Campbell, Legal Director, National Accident Helpline: Over the past two years there has been a live debate between the Ministry of Justice and stakeholder groups about the need to reform the process for personal injury claims. Despite repeated deadlines going back over a year, the government has not yet set out its response. While this has led to frustration and uncertainty for insurers and lawyers alike, we see this as potentially a positive sign.
The initial proposals in the consultation seemed to signal a fundamental shift in the current system towards a more insurance-based approach for small claims and it may be that the government are reconsidering this radical change.
While many cases are conducted efficiently, the current system is prone to delays. Most often this is due to the lack of rigorous enforcement of time limits or behaviour protocols for both lawyers and insurers. Reform might focus on these areas, but change should not undermine the level playing field which has been at the heart of the claims system in England and Wales. To do so would restrict choice and risk the quality of justice available to claimants.
Restricting claim investigation to the defendant insurer alone, as originally proposed, further undermines the existing balance between insurers and solicitors which is vital in any fair system. It increases the likelihood of the insurer under-settling or approaching the claimant with an offer to settle direct, despite that placing the insurer in an obvious conflict of interest.
The same access to justice issues arise if inflexible time limits or generic claim forms are introduced – these too will restrict the claimant’s solicitor from carrying out appropriate investigation. We are wary of any proposal to fix costs which does not set out the level at which such costs will be fixed. Any fair process must have the consumer’s interests at heart. There are concerns that a fixed costs regime will be too inflexible and will not allow lawyers to provide appropriate support in complex cases.
It would be tragic if the consultation arrived at proposals which would disproportionately affect clients with limited knowledge or experience of the current systems, or those who face other barriers to justice such as poor English. We eagerly await the government’s response – we do hope they have listened and are committed to ensuring that there remains a fair system for injured people to have access to high quality legal advice.
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