A High Court judge has expressed scepticism whether the insurance industry will see that the public benefits from expected cuts in personal injury damages awards as a result of new guidelines for such awards.
Mr Justice Bernard Barton was among a number of judges who had raised concerns about the guidelines, particularly aimed at reducing damages for minor personal injuries, which were adopted last weekend by a majority of judges.
In an address on Tuesday marking his final day as a High Court judge, Mr Justice Barton noted the insurance industry, having campaigned for an end to juries hearing personal injury cases, had not passed on savings to consumers.
He wondered whether the industry was “building a case” against passing on award reductions resulting from the new guidelines.
He also said judges should not do anything perceived as “bending to the will” of the Executive because that undermines the independence of the judiciary.
While some sectors are “delighted” lawyers may suffer as a result of certain changes going through, a strong legal profession is as important as an independent judiciary for the health of a democracy, he said.
The judge, who presided over the High Court juries list in recent years, urged lawyers and judges to strive to ensure juries continue to hear civil actions for defamation and assault.
The main justification for trial by jury in such civil cases is to protect the litigant from the “caprice” of a judge, he said. As a barrister, he had advised clients they should settle a case as they faced being “hammered” by particular judges but he never had to say that when a client was going before a jury.
Despite the “inefficiencies, expense and uncertainties” of jury trials, juries involve the public in the administration of justice and he passionately believed they should be retained in civil cases.
He made his farewell address from the bench during an event chaired by High Court president Ms Justice Mary Irvine.
Both judges, and various members of Mr Justice Barton's family, including his wife Ann Marie, were physically present in court for the address.
Others participated in the event remotely and tributes were paid to the judge, via video conference, from the Attorney General, Paul Gallagher; Bar Council Chairwoman Maura McNally; Law Society President James Cahill; Courts Service CEO Angela Denning and Garda Superintendent Ann Markey.
Mr Justice Barton, who was educated at UCD, the Irish Management Institute and the King's Inns, became a barrister in 1977 and a senior counsel in 1997 and built up a substantial practice, particularly in personal injuries.
He became a High Court judge in 2014 and presided over the Garda Compensation list, the list dealing with appeals from the Hepatitis C/HIV Compensation Tribunal and, in recent years, the jury list. Among the high profile jury cases he presided over was the unsuccessful action by businessman Denis O’Brien against the Sunday Business Post alleging he was defamed in a number of articles.