One of the puzzling features of Irish democracy is the way it enables the dishonest to flourish at the expense of law-abiding citizens. This happens at every level of society and is facilitated by politicians, public officials and the courts, often under the guise of compassion.
There were two examples of this tendency in recent days. One was highlighted by the head of claims at the State’s largest public sector insurer, Michael Whelehan, who bemoaned the fact said that the system’s acceptance of insurance fraud was encouraging increased incidents of exaggerated claims and providing “an income supplement to the morally challenged”.
He pointed out what everybody in the country, apart from our judiciary, has known for years. Insurance fraudsters are “walking free from courts effectively with the message to spin the wheel again.”
The price of that is already evident in higher insurance costs for everybody, the curtailment of local services and leisure amenities and the closure of small businesses.
While some judges have cottoned on to the scale of dishonest and exaggerated claims, the problem will not be solved until the entire system is reformed
Outright fraud is just one part of the problem. The other is that utterly disproportionate awards for often trivial injuries have become the norm. This is reflected in the so called, book of quantum, which sets out standard awards for all types of injuries to be handed down by our courts. This document represents an incitement to unscrupulous people to sue for damages for the most minor of injuries and be certain of substantial pay outs.
Glacial pace of change
While some judges have cottoned on to the scale of dishonest and exaggerated claims, the problem will not be solved until the entire system is reformed. This is where the glacial pace of change in official decision-making is evident. The Personal Injury Commission to examine the issue, was established in mid-2016, reported to the Government in July of 2018 recommending the establishment of a committee under the Judicial Council to assess the level of awards and to bring forward revised guidelines. Yet here we are in November of 2019 and the committee is still in the process of being set up.
Another example of how the State rewards dishonesty was the report that more than half of Dublin City Council’s 24,000 tenants are behind in their rent, with 20 per cent more than six months in arrears. Rent arrears are now almost €33 million across the council’s properties.
Because of legal complications, the council was for a long time unable to seek the eviction of tenants who refused to pay. In recent times it secured four possession orders from the courts and in two of the cases the tenants paid the full amount of arrears directly. In a third case the tenant is now repaying the amount weekly, but in the fourth case the tenant has refused to pay anything and is facing eviction.
Of course there are some cases where people cannot pay due to temporary or even permanent adverse circumstances but the idea that more than half of all tenants cannot pay their relatively modest rents on time is not believable.
How can local authorities be expected to build homes if dishonesty thrives while the honest are penalised
The solution being proposed by council officials to deal with the massive shortfall arising from non-payment is to increase rents for those who do pay. This has run into a justified storm of opposition from Dublin City councillors who want to know why the people who pay their rents should be punished for the transgressions of their neighbours.
Ability of speculators
At the other end of the social scale the ability of speculators to hold on to their properties, even though they owe millions, has been another feature of recent years. Hiding behind the natural concern for ordinary families who fell into mortgage arrears during the crash, speculators of all kinds from the super rich to run-of-the-mill chancers made no repayments of any kind for years on end.
Contrary to all the scare headlines about a wave of home repossessions, the fact is that despite the very high level of mortgage arrears in this country due to the crash, the scale of repossessions here is actually much lower than in the UK. That is because the major financial institutions are rightly careful about putting hard pressed families out of their homes.
The problem is that compassion towards families in real difficulty, whether they are council tenants or home owners in mortgage arrears, is being exploited to such an extent by the unscrupulous that the whole system is being undermined. How can local authorities be expected to build homes or the banks to fund a healthy housing market if dishonesty thrives while the honest are penalised.
The Revenue Commissioners run a highly efficient income tax collection system for the simple reason that the financial penalties for non-compliance are severe and taxpayers know the same rules apply to everyone. This was not always the case but since the system was reformed and updated in the early 1990s everybody is aware that the law will be applied fairly and impartially.
The real danger of allowing the “morally bankrupt” to thrive is that honest citizens may conclude they are being taken for fools by a complacent political and judicial establishment. That could well drive them into the arms of populists, whether of the left or right, who will harness their legitimate discontent for sinister purposes.