I have talked before about the law of unintended consequences; those situations where you choose a certain course of action for the right reasons only to find that it leads you into a cul-de-sac, when the consequences of your actions (whatever you do) are equally unattractive and uncomfortable. I don’t think the Government’s proposed reforms to personal injury funding are exactly an example of that. They are more of an example of reactionary policy making, where to deal with a perceived problem, one creates a whole raft of others which are probably more serious.
Last week the Government consulted on its proposed fixed fees for personal injury cases, which are due to commence in April 2013. These combined with the ban on referral fees and success fees introduced by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act were put in place to deal with what we were told was a claims culture apparently growing up in this country and to put a stop to “ambulance-chasing lawyers” as I heard one MP on Radio 4 last week describing them. Incidentally, has anyone actually seen an ambulance-chasing lawyer?
Whether you agree with the perceived evil or not, the imperative issue is that whatever new system comes in preserves the access to justice to victims of accidents and injuries. I fear that if these proposed fees become a reality we will see large numbers of law firms simply ceasing to do this kind of work. This will leave victims either endeavouring to handle matters themselves (against an insurance industry whose understandable priority will be to reduce the value of claims) or using firms, who in order to make a profit, may engage unqualified or inexperienced staff to handle matters. Either way, the risks that the victims of injury will either receive less compensation than they should secure or will not pursue a claim at all, will be enormous.
This cannot have been the intended consequence when these reforms were introduced (one hopes…….), but I think the consequences are inevitable. It is not too late. The Government can start by acknowledging that the importance of these reforms is such that their implications must be fully explored before they are introduced. If the current pace of reform is maintained and without being too melodramatic about it, the effects on all concerned could be catastrophic.