Thursday, 16 May 2019

Questions (7, 19)

Joan Burton

Question:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans for a statutory cap on insurance compensation awards for minor injuries in view of the fact that the Personal Injuries Commission found that awards for minor injuries here are almost five times those paid in the UK; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17830/19]

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Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

19. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to investigate capping personal injury payouts; the way in which this will be achieved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17645/19]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Justice)

The Minister has made some tough comments recently on the capping of personal injury payments, and I think it is fair to say that this House is totally exasperated with the escalating cost of insurance. We have had a number of debates, including Private Members' debates, on insurance over the past three years, and yet many of the groups which represent the very hard pressed say that insurance costs are constantly rising. I know the Minister's colleague, Senator Lawlor, has a Bill in the Seanad on this, so is the Minister finally going to take stern action on it now?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 19 together.

The Deputy will be aware that in July 2016 the Government set up a special working group chaired by Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, to analyse the high cost imposed by insurance companies, and to determine what action the Government might take to address any issues that might be contributing to these costs. The cost of insurance working group published a series of recommendations in 2017 and 2018, the majority of which have been implemented, and work is ongoing to implement the outstanding recommendations. The Personal Injuries Commission, PIC, also undertook a major analysis of the claims process in Ireland and recommended that the future judicial council be assigned the function under its statute of compiling guidelines for appropriate general damages for various types of personal injury.

On the specific question raised by the Deputy on the capping of insurance awards, the cost of insurance working group is examining the issue of the introduction of legislation for the purpose of capping the damages which a court may award in respect of personal injuries. In response to recommendation 5 of the working group's January 2018 report, the Law Reform Commission is now carrying out a detailed analysis of the possibility of developing constitutionally sound legislation to delimit or cap the amounts of damages which a court may award in respect of some or all categories of personal injuries. This forms part of the commission’s fifth programme of law reform, which was approved by the Government earlier this year. The commission is giving this project immediate attention with the aim of publishing an issues paper over the coming months. In its final report of July 2018 the PIC, chaired by the former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns, noted this development and expressed the belief that the Law Reform Commission is the appropriate body best equipped and resourced to undertake this study.

As emerged in the course of the working group's deliberations, this is an area of the law replete with complex constitutional and legal issues. It was recognised that the State must be cognisant of the constitutional rights of all parties and must balance those rights to ensure that any encroachment on them is justified, proportionate and in the common good.

The Minister mentioned the former president of the High Court, Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns, whose fundamental point was that there is a compo culture in our country. Slips and trips are a key feature of the legal system, and schools, crèches, shops, small businesses, and local authorities have all become victims of both this and the escalating cost of insurance. As I said, there is a Bill in the Seanad on this.

I note that the distinguished journalist, Stephen Collins, wrote recently about the amazing awards in our book of quantum, which are maybe four or five times the amount of similar awards in the UK. Mr. Collins seemed to think that the only way forward in this regard was not, as the Minister suggested, to kick this into touch with the Law Reform Commission, or the judicial council whenever we see it, but to have a referendum and put this to the people. Inordinate awards are made based on the very flawed book of quantum estimates, and that is central to the problem. We need to move back towards recognising the rights of citizens and particularly small businesses, local groups and so on.

I very much share the concern of Deputy Broughan and others on this issue. As Minister for Justice and Equality, there are perhaps two areas which fall directly under my responsibility. One is ensuring that every effort is being made to combat perceived fraud in the matter of claims, be they exaggerated or false. This is an issue on which I have had discussions with An Garda Síochána, and I am pleased to see specific initiatives in this regard.

Deputy Broughan mentioned the Judicial Council Bill, and what its current position is. I recall that when this Bill was first published in 2017, its primary purpose was to set up a judicial council, which would promote and maintain excellence and high standards of conduct by judges. This is a large piece of legislation and requires careful and due consideration. However, I am pleased that there has been progress in recent times, and the Bill passed Committee Stage in the Seanad in April of this year. My priority is to find agreement on a range of amendments which had already been developed and were the subject of ongoing consultation with the Judiciary in the preceding months. In this regard, I want to acknowledge the constructive engagement of Deputy Ó Laoghaire in particular on many of the amendments, none of which, however, is directly related to the issues raised by Deputy Broughan. This is a big Bill. However, I am very keen to ensure that if there are aspects of the legislation applicable to the insurance industry, I will frame an appropriate number of amendments to ensure this Bill can be the most appropriate vehicle for early enactment.

Is the Government supporting the Bill brought before the Seanad and will the Minister try to steer it through this House as well? He mentioned fraud and perjury, a very important aspect of the problem, but the cost of insurance working group found that sufficient legislative provision exists to combat fraud and perjury in some of these claims using section 14 of the 2004 Act. The report states "no instance of a prosecution or conviction pursuant to section 14 was found by the working group". Clearly, this is another example of legislation that is not enforced.

We have discussed this matter so many times in this Dáil and Fianna Fáil moved a motion on it just a couple of weeks ago. We need some decisive action and the Minister has responsibility. Perhaps it is something that should be a major priority.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.