“When lawyers say the cuts are ‘savage’, and business and insurance reform campaigners say they don’t go far enough, the cuts might be just about right.”
That’s the view of the new personal injuries awards guidelines of a senior legal source with extensive knowledge of personal injuries litigation.
The fact a majority of judges supported the guidelines, particularly aimed at slashing awards for minor and whiplash-type injuries from which there is a full recovery, shows judges recognise there is a real problem, he added.
“If properly applied the guidelines will ensure adequate compensation for moderate, serious and severe injuries, but plaintiffs who bring minor, or unmeritorious, claims hoping for a windfall will be disappointed.”
The fact that 63 judges voted against the guidelines, with 83 in favour, may reflect concerns among District Court judges about that court’s ability to cope with an expected influx of personal injury cases as a result of guidelines reducing the awards for many minor injuries to below €15,000, the cut-off point for a Circuit Court case, another source believes.
The adoption of the guidelines has moved the controversy out of the judicial into the political arena as it is for Government to commence the relevant section of the Judicial Council Act implementing the guidelines.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is to bring proposals to Cabinet on Tuesday to that effect.
The guidelines, to replace the Book of Quantum, which set general guidelines for personal injury awards, were compiled by the Personal Injuries Guidelines Committee of the Judicial Council, headed by High Court president Mary Irvine.
The committee examined awards here and in certain other countries but decided not to consult with various interest groups for reasons including it did not want to face claims of being influenced by lobbyists.
The guidelines mean certain awards, particularly for minor injuries, will be reduced to a level between awards in Northern Ireland and awards in England and Wales. Data obtained by the committee suggested Irish whiplash awards are 1.2 to 1.3 times higher than in Northern Ireland, and 1.9 to 2.3 times higher than in England and Wales.
The guidelines mean a whiplash injury from which a full recovery is made within six months will get an award between €500-€3,000, with up to €12,000 for recovery within two years. The Book of Quantum provided no minimum and for up to €19,400 where a full recovery is expected.
Judges can depart from the guidelines but must give clear reasons for doing so.
It will take time to assess the impact of the guidelines because they apply only to new cases coming before the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB). Litigants who have refused offers from PIAB and gone to court will have their claims processed in line with the Book of Quantum.
Sources are thus sceptical about any significant cuts in insurance premiums any time soon.
The guidelines are expected to impact most on High Court personal injuries litigation, where awards and legal costs are highest, but the fact they set clear brackets for specific injuries should lead to more settlements and less litigation in all courts.
“Lawyers are feeling aggrieved but look at what’s happening in England, where they are bringing in laws in May to further cut whiplash-type awards,” a source said. “The new awards will mean fixed damages of £275 (sterling) for an injury where there is recovery in three months, down from the current average of £1,800, and £470 in six months, down from £2,250. The only way is down.”