Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Feb 1998

Vol. 486 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Hearing Impairment Claims.

The decision by the Minister for Defence to go to the High Court tomorrow comes at a time when cases have increased from 100 to 160 per week. Will he clarify the nature of the appeal, whether he intends it to apply to all cases or is the application on notice to all the claimants who might be affected by the adjournment if granted? Is he working on other strategies?

Is he satisfied that the expert group, given the method of appointment by the State, will be accepted as an impartial group? I accept the integrity of those serving on this group but why did he not go to the court immediately on establishing the expert group? Will he explain the delay in establishing the expert group and why its first meeting was only held on 10 December 1997, despite discussions in the Dáil in October and November?

I condemn the reply to my parliamentary question when I asked for details of the expert group two weeks ago. There are potentially 50,000 claims leading to a cost of £1.5 billion as a conservative estimate, some reach £4.5 million. It is a time of unprecedented low morale in the Defence Forces and it will take an enormous amount of time for them to recover from the derision, jokes, ridicule and general undermining which has occurred in recent times.

This has been created and fed by the large number of compensation claims, many of which it is said would not receive compensation in other jurisdictions. It appears that the media campaign of recent weeks, far from reducing the number of claims, has in fact increased them from 100 to 160 per week. Action other than a media campaign is necessary. The reality of the Defence Forces' position here is that there is no other system in place for personal injuries, other than the courts.

The other reason that we have the extraordinary situation is that internationally agreed hearing test assessments from America and the UK are not acceptable in Irish courts. This is a mysterious situation and the attempted remedy now is to create our own standard. The question arises that if the UK and American standard is not acceptable in the court, why should an Irish standard prove any more acceptable?

The implications of this are serious for the Minister's current strategy although I accept the expert group is attempting to obtain a standard scientific assessment and measure of hearing loss and relating it to handicap. There has been a great deal of talk about the number of claims.

It is also clear that the number of claims appeared to increase dramatically at one point following the leaking of advice given by the Attorney General in 1993, which contained advice to the State, and apparently making its way into the hands of plaintiffs. It stated that "if these cases make their way into court they could not be defended" and "advice from the Attorney General's office in circulation is that in the great majority of cases the information upon which the Army would have to rely in order to establish a safe system of work is simply not available and therefore the plaintiff's case cannot be contradicted and this applies particularly to personnel who served and fired weapons prior to 1987".

The Secretary of the Department made a statement today confirming the advice given in 1993 was that the State would not be able to defend these cases. The cases escalated out of control at that point and people clearly took advantage of that leak. It is important that genuine claimants can seek redress for damage done to them by way of their experience through their work in the Defence Forces.

However, if claimants are currently receiving compensation for zero handicap it raises the most serious questions of the exposure of the State, the impact on the taxpayer, the impact on social services and the morale of the Defence Forces in general. The Department of Defence is now looking for 20 extra staff, the Chief State Solicitor's office has 32 staff working on this while last week the Department had no one available to attend a case in Limerick. This is indeed a crisis.

We need to develop a compensation board within the Army, which can use an agreed standard and agreed criteria for compensation on differing levels of hearing loss. This has been done in other countries. We also require the establishment of a personal injuries tribunal, a national claims management agency. It is extraordinary that only last week a claims manager to handle these cases was appointed. The State must act across Departments, initiatives must be taken by Government and steps must be taken to protect and try to repair the damage that has been done to the reputation and morale of the Defence Forces.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister sends his apologies for being unavoidably absent. I will draw to his attention the Deputy's comments, particularly the proposals she made towards the end of her contribution.

This gives me an opportunity to make a statement on the Army hearing loss litigation about which all sides of the House are deeply concerned. I do not wish to go over old ground unnecessarily. I am sure Deputies are familiar with the current position in which more than 11,500 serving and former personnel of the Defence Forces have initiated legal claims against the Department of Defence for alleged hearing loss caused in the course of their service with the forces.

Of those cases, some 1,539 have been finalised at a cost of £41.679 million which includes £5.890 million in plaintiffs' legal costs. While some 51 cases were withdrawn or dismissed by the courts when litigated to finality by the State, the situation has remained bleak in prospect until the present. Deputies will be aware that the key issue in this litigation is the absence of a system of assessing hearing handicap acceptable to the Irish courts. Such a system is being prepared by a committee of experts assembled under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children. I have been reliably informed that its deliberations will be complete and a report issued by the end of this month. The imminence of this expert report and the coincidence of this fact with a reserved judgment awaited in one of the hearing loss cases has convinced me that the time is now opportune to apply to the High Court for an adjournment of all these cases.

In view of the fact that an application for such an adjournment will be made before the High Court on Friday, 6 February 1998, it would be inappropriate of me, and disrespectful to the courts, to attempt to rehearse at any length the arguments which will be adduced to persuade the High Court that such an adjournment is warranted. In these circumstances, I trust Deputy Fitzgerald appreciates the position.

If the High Court decides to grant an adjournment of these cases it will provide a breathing space in which we can await the publication of the Department of Health and Children's expert group report on hearing handicap assessment. At the same time the reserved judgment of the High Court in a certain hearing loss case can also be awaited. In so far as this case may have points of general application to other cases it, too, will be of tremendous interest. It is the Government's intention, when the report becomes available, to adduce it in evidence before the courts and then present it with the other best evidence which the State can provide. It will be then up to the courts to adjudicate on the matter.

I trust Deputies will bear with me when I say that I do not wish to be in any way previous or presumptuous in anticipating what decision the High Court may or may not reach in these cases. The absence of a hearing handicap assessment system has been identified by commentators and Judiciary alike as a major impediment in processing these cases. We are attempting to fill this need and to provide the requisite information to the courts. It will be for them to decide how they should treat it. In the meantime, it is the Government's considered view that, pending such judicial adjudication on the forthcoming handicap assessment system, when available, it will be in order to halt the processing of Army hearing loss cases through the courts until they have had an opportunity to receive and consider it.

I assure Deputies and the wider public that we are fully seized of this enormous issue and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the interests of the taxpayer are fully protected. At the same time, we must have equal regard to the rights of those who may have suffered a significant injury to receive appropriate compensation.

I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to make this statement and trust she understands the imminence of tomorrow's court case prevents me making further comment on the matter.