The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday laid out the extensive work being done to prepare for the increase in the personal injury (PI) small claims limit, including how it might work with the planned online court.
It shows that, despite the continuing silence over when the Civil Liability Bill will be published to implement the wider whiplash reforms, considerable work is going on behind the scenes about raising the limit – to £5,000 for whiplash claims and £2,000 for other PI cases.
Though this can be done without primary legislation, the MoJ has previously indicated that it wanted to introduce all the personal injury reforms together.
The detail came in written evidence from minister Lord Keen to the justice select committee ahead of a hearing it is holding on the issue next Tuesday.
He explained that the MoJ has created five working groups to consider specific aspects of the reform programme. These working groups focus on:
Overall strategic direction – to provide an overarching steer to develop the work programmes of the other four sub-groups as well to identify the work necessary to support the overall implementation programme.
This group includes senior representatives from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), the Association of British Insurers, the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, the Law Society and the Motor Accident Solicitors Society.
Guidance and support – to review and assess the current level of guidance and support available to court users of the small claims court, and to identify gaps and develop solutions to support users of the new system post implementation.
Legal issues – responsible for reviewing and assessing the existing court rules, practice directions and pre-action protocols with a view to developing the required new rules and supporting documents to facilitate the new process for bringing a personal injury claim through the small claims court.
Liability – to consider the specific issues related to agreeing liability following a road traffic accident, and to develop appropriate new processes to facilitate the settling of liability disputes between users of the new system post implementation.
IT – to develop an appropriate and accessible new IT system to enable all users (including litigants in person) to navigate the new process post implementation.
The latter four groups are made up of nominees put forward by members of the steering group, and includes both lawyers and insurers, while the IT group also includes experts with both technical and legal expertise, including representatives from MedCo and Claims Portal Ltd.
Lord Keen added: “As well as the significant engagement being taken forward through the expert working groups, Ministry of Justice officials have also met with and discussed these proposals and the interface with the new online court with Lord Briggs and members of the senior judiciary.
“Further work is also being undertaken with representatives from the third sector specifically in relation to identifying the needs of litigants in person, and ensuring that appropriate non-digital support is provided for those users unable to utilise electronic methods of progressing their claim.”
On the Civil Liability Bill, Lord Keen would only say that further announcements would be made “in due course”.
The justice select committee announced a ‘short’ inquiry into the small claims limit increase last month – it will hold just this one oral hearing, where it will hear from: Lord Keen; Nigel Teasdale and Shirley Denyer, respectively former president and technical director of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers; Jason Tripp, operations director of claims handling company Coplus; Steve MItchell, deputy head of legal services at the union Usdaw; and Mrs Justice Simler and His Honour Judge Nigel Bird.
It will then issue a report, that it said would also take account of evidence given to an inquiry it started last February on all the PI reforms that was cut short by the election.
This included an oral hearing with the then APIL president Neil Sugarman and James Dalton, director of general insurance at the Association of British Insurers.
At that hearing , committee chairman Bob Neill – who has retained the role in the new Parliament – accused the MoJ of “firing in entirely the wrong direction” with its reforms.
He said that instead of restricting general damages for a “certain type of tort”, in this case whiplash claims, the MoJ should be putting claims management companies out of business.
Speaking at a fringe event  at October’s Conservative Party conference, Mr Neill also said that the insurance industry “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 said. “We have to act with considerable caution.”