Conservative MPs yesterday cautioned the government against over-reacting to the abuses in the personal injury market by taking away the right of genuinely injured people to sue.
Bob Neill, the chairman of the justice select committee, also warned the Solicitors Regulation Authority that it needed to focus more on rogue PI solicitors than arguments with the Law Society over independent regulation.
Speaking at a fringe meeting on civil justice at the Conservative Party conference – organised by the Social Market Foundation and sponsored by the Access to Justice pressure group – Mr Neill said his committee would be returning to the PI reforms.
The insurance industry, he said, “has got to do a lot more to make its case” on the need for reform of whiplash claims.
“There is some abuse but equally we mustn’t overreact so as to prevent genuine claims coming forward,” he added. “We have to act with considerable caution.”
He acknowledged that the tariff of damages put forward by the Ministry of Justice would have “rough edges”, but said it was far preferable from the other option considered of ending general damages altogether for whiplash claims.
Mr Neill argued that the SRA has not prioritised tackling rogue PI solicitors, such as the small number who take on claims sourced by overseas operators cold-calling consumers. He predicted that his committee was likely to take the regulator to task over this in the coming months.
“They need to step up the mark much more effectively if they are going to justify themselves rather than getting into the spats we’ve had between themselves and [the Law Society],” he said, referencing the continuing argument between the two over whether the SRA should have complete independence from Chancery Lane.
Fellow Conservative MP Alberto Costa, a former solicitor, said it was “an inconvenient truth to the insurance industry that while we’ve seen over the last five years a significant decline in soft-tissue injury claims, there’s been not a penny of decline in car insurance premiums”.
In light of that fall, he argued that “we need to be careful that we don’t take away our rights to damages and diminish the duty of care that we all owe to one another” in the hope of what would anyway be a relatively small fall in premiums, if at all.
Mr Costa – who had to leave the justice select committee after the election because he was named parliamentary private secretary to the secretary of state for Scotland – acknowledged that the language used by MPs “has got to be tempered”.
It was, he said, “very easy” for Tory MPs to say there is a rampant epidemic of claims.
Whiplash was a “terrible” name that should be replaced by what it actually signified – a soft-tissue injury. “Whiplash is an injury like any other,” he said.
Mr Costa said he had tried urging his Conservative colleagues to follow his lead, but confessed: “I don’t quite understand what they’re saying and they get carried away on some right-wing rant.”
On other issues, both MPs supported the notion of legal aid supporting early advice in a range of areas.
Mr Neill suggested that the post-LASPO collapse in the use of mediation in divorce cases was because that early advice was not available to steer the parties in the right direction.
Providing it, even if subject either to a financial or time limit, “will be an investment to save”.
The current situation has led to an increase in litigants in person, which was both “unfair” on them and not cost effective because of the impact on the courts, Mr Neill said.
He also said he would be pursuing a ban on paid McKenzie Friends.
Responding to a question from a member of the audience who was an advocate for those with learning disabilities, Mr Costa said the government should be doing more to help that group access the advice they needed to make claims.
Mr Neill said he has written to Lord Chancellor David Lidington, “who shows real sensitivity to these issues”, to ask him to speed up the ministry’s review of LASPO.
On employment tribunal fees, Mr Neill was blunt: “The government of which I was a minister at one point got it wrong.”
He said the government should have listened to the committee’s report on fees and criticised the failure to trial them or assess their impact. “[This] courted the inevitable defeat that they got in the Supreme Court… But I believe that ministers took that on board very seriously.”
He continued: “Ultimately, though it’s perhaps legitimate to try and recoup some of the cost, litigation and access to justice is not a commodity. There is a public good in access to justice that deserves a level of public support and that’s the message from that Supreme Court judgment that I hope politicians of all parties take on board.”
Mr Costa also talked briefly about the report on access to justice issued last month by Labour peer Lord Bach, a fellow Leicestershire politician. He said it was “a very good document that we as Conservatives should take on board and review carefully, to see if there’s anything instructive in it that can help inform us going forward about having a more equitable access to justice system.”