Personal Injuries Assessment Board (Amendment) Bill 2007: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The amendment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 centres on the activity following the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, making a formal award. While PIAB awards mirror court awards in that both have regard to a book of quantum to determine the appropriate award to be given, some claimants choose to reject their award and commence litigation proceedings in the hope of receiving greater compensation. It is their right to choose this course of action and the Bill before us in no way interferes with that right.

However, as proceedings advance, some claimants are accepting the same amount as the PIAB award but also recovering legal costs and additional costs of up to €1,500 to cover the cost of engaging a solicitor to assist with the original PIAB claim. The proceedings are therefore unnecessary for the claimant to receive the same level of award and this development completely undermines the rationale and positive impact of the PIAB. If it is allowed to continue, the consequences will be far-reaching and the cost burden will fall on the consumer and business. We must not forget that it is only a few years since businesses were being squeezed out of existence by the spiralling costs of insurance. The PIAB has done a great deal to address this unhappy set of circumstances.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business made the following recommendation in its Third Interim Report on Reforms to the Irish Insurance Market, "Where, not having accepted a PIAB award, the court award is equal to or less than a PIAB award, legal costs should not be allowed to the claimant." The proposed legislation will implement this recommendation.

Section 1 of the Bill adds two new sections to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. The new section 51A provides that where a claimant rejects a PIAB assessment that has been accepted by a respondent and where he or she fails in any subsequent proceedings to get more than the amount determined by the PIAB assessment, he or she will not be entitled to legal costs. The new section 51B provides that no legal costs shall be allowed for the making of an application to the PIAB. Section 2 of the Bill provides for the citation of the new Act.

The PIAB was established in April 2004 as part of the Government's insurance reform programme with the aim of allowing certain classes of personal injury claims, in respect of which liability is uncontested, to be settled without the need for the costs associated with litigation. The threat of rising insurance costs at the time posed serious risks to Irish business and the economy generally.

Under the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003, claimants are obliged to submit claims to the PIAB. They may submit their claims directly or may employ a solicitor at their own cost, as is the case with the Employment Appeals Tribunal. Since its establishment, the PIAB has successfully fulfilled its legal obligations. It is now assessing claims three times faster and four times cheaper than under the old litigation system. To the end of May 2007, the board had made actual savings of more than €45 million on awards totalling €115 million by comparison with the old, unwieldy, adversarial and litigation-based system. This is quite an achievement in such a short space of time and can be only good news for accident victims, business and consumers in general, who have seen big reductions in the cost of their insurance premiums.

The Personal Injuries Assessment Board has succeeded in establishing a new non-adversarial culture of settling claims. It has put paid to the long wait for compensation and the adversarial approach to the process that previously led to huge uncertainty and stress for claimants. Within a short number of years the old system has been replaced by a speedy, low cost, user-friendly system.

I refer to examples of how the Personal Injuries Assessment Board has pared down the personal injury claims process in a wholly positive way. In 2005, the number of personal injury cases going through the Irish courts system dropped from more than 35,000 cases in 2004 to fewer than 5,000. The effects are felt throughout the courts system where valuable time has been freed up to deal with cases that should more properly reside there.

The board is a new body which has significantly changed the environment for making personal injury claims and is the subject of regular challenge. I am aware of these challenges and the Government will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the board is not undermined in its work and in its objectives.

It is projected by the PIAB that an absence of corrective legislation has the potential to lead to the rejection of almost all PIAB assessments which will subsequently proceed to litigation for the sole purpose of securing costs. The Bill addresses the issues I have described in order to ensure thatthe stated Government policy of streamlining the settlement of personal injury claims is not permitted to be circumvented in the manner currently evidenced.

The current amendment is a short technical proposal designed to address a significant risk to the intent of the Act. With this in mind the co-operation of Senators in assisting the smooth passage of the Bill through this House would be appreciated.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his outline. Notwithstanding what he has said, the Opposition is not happy with the Bill. Fine Gael supported the setting up of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board but we cannot support the Bill. It was this party that first called for it to be set up and led a charge on the cost of insurance and the cost of living in general and forced the Government to act. However, a legal and possible constitutional principle is being trampled upon. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for a situation where a claimant rejects a PIAB assessment that has been offered and where he or she fails in the courts to win more than the amount offered by the board. I understand the logic behind this proposal; nobody wants to encourage frivolous claims and nobody wants to tie up the time of the courts unnecessarily nor add to the costs incurred by business and employers.

The Bill is a step too far, aiming as it does to restrict, through discouragement, the exercising of the legitimate, democratic and legal rights of citizens. I refer to statements from representatives of the Government at the time of the passing of the original legislation which set up the Personal Injuries Assessment Board in 2003. It is in the context of that debate and the undertakings of the Ministers in Government at the time that we raise these objections today.

The then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Harney, stated during the Second Stage debate in this House:

I am convinced the introduction of the PIAB, as well as the other reform initiatives being undertaken by the Government, will lead to a proper functioning market that will attract new entrants into the market and provide the much needed competition to drive premia down further.

Fine Gael believes this to be the case. While premia could always be lower, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board has done great work in helping reduce costs. Where is the evidence that people going to the courts are doing otherwise? Deputy Michael Ahern, the then Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, stated at the end of that debate:

The PIAB is not designed to deny people's access to the courts, nor their entitlement to seek independent legal advice. The priority for the PIAB will be to implement fair procedures in accordance with the principles of natural justice as apply in this documents-only procedure. At the end of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board process, the parties are entitled to reject the award if they consider they would secure a more favourable outcome through the courts system.

Why is there to be a U-turn? At the time of the publication of this legislation, we were specifically informed that access to the courts would not be denied or discouraged. Those who feared legitimate claimants would be denied their day in court were placated time and again by the Government which said they would not be discouraged or forced out of the courts.

I wish to quote another Minister, the former Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who stated in the Dáil:

It has also been alleged that respondents will consent to a case going to assessment with the full intention from the outset of rejecting the award and fighting liability in court. This makes no financial or tactical sense. Why would a respondent waste fees on the PIAB and then incur litigation costs? Delaying a case never operates to the advantage of the respondent but always enhances the value of the claim with the passage of time, which hampers rehabilitation. If potential defendants consider that they have good prospects of defending a case in full, they are anxious to do so at the earliest opportunity so that the reserve against potential liability can be taken off their books.

That is exactly what we are arguing today. There is no incentive to anyone who is simply trying to play the system to go to the PIAB with the full intention of frivolously going to the courts. Only where there is a legitimate concern at the decision reached by the board would a decision to proceed to the courts follow.

We supported the establishment of the PIAB but laid down some important markers. We made the point that Article 34 of the Constitution prescribes that justice must be administered in courts established by law, by judges appointed under the Constitution and, in general, must be administered in public.

There are in law very specific provisions which allow the exercise of limited functions and powers of a judicial nature by other than judges. Clearly, however, the exercise of such powers must be in accordance with the principles of natural justice and with fair procedures. Under the original legislation injured claimants are effectively obliged by law to present their claims to this board which will operate in secret and will effectively deny them the right of any independent advice, assistance or representation. Despite these concerns, we favoured the Bill. This debate is a step too far. We must draw a line and reconsider whether it is appropriate that the State seek to influence and discourage people exercising their legal rights. For that reason, we will oppose the relevant section of the Bill.

I was very taken by the statement issued today by a young barrister colleague of mine in the other House, Deputy Creighton, who believes rushing the Bill through both Houses without proper debate is not correct. She has argued well in that she states that the Bill will narrow the options available to members of the public seeking justice and proper recompense when they have been wronged. The Bill is being rushed without public consultation as though it was emergency legislation ensuring that no views, perhaps other than those of the Government and the limited offerings in this House, will be heard. Perhaps it is overboard in regard to the views of the insurance companies.

Deputy Creighton has made an earnest call, which I ask the Minister to take on board, to allow for consultation with the Attorney General and to give him breathing space to investigate the constitutional issues which arise in all of this.

I welcome the Minister and the senior officials in the Department. I also welcome Ms Patricia Byron, chief executive of the PIAB, who is in the Visitors Gallery. I wish the Minister success on his re-appointment as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I was delighted when he was re-appointed because I have been at many public events which he has attended and heard many of his speeches. He has a grasp of enterprise, trade and employment. As someone who served in the trade Department, I know the intricacies of that Department and the Minister has brought great knowledge to it. Certainly, he has contributed greatly to the success of the Fianna Fáil Party in the general election by his appearances in press releases and at media and other events. In his Department, the Minister has shown he is someone who is alert to and can cope with the competition we will face in future. It is another of the reasons for our success.

I suggest to Deputy Creighton that she leave her interests outside the House when making statements on the Bill before us.

I simply picked up on a statement which was issued.

I presume it was a vested interest speech.

I could not possibly speak for a Member of the other House.

I was in another field before being elected to the House, but it is important to consider the legislation from the perspective of the consumer. The Bill was published before the election. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, of which Senator Coghlan was a member——

And honoured to be so.

——recommended unanimously that this short Bill should be brought before the House to amend the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act. I note that the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business had a poor election with its Chairman, Vice Chairman and several members losing their Dáil seats. I hope the trend does not extend to the Upper House, including Senator Coghlan.

I would want to mind my back, would I not?

It applies to us all. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party supports the Bill unanimously. While the party includes quite a number of lawyers who have certain concerns about the legislation, they feel its provisions are necessary for the consumer and the overall good of the community. The original legislation, which was enacted when the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, was the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, represented a significant and revolutionary innovation. When Fianna Fáil entered Government five years ago, insurance was the single most significant issue affecting trade and Irish business. The cost of insurance has dropped by approximately 50% in the interim, which is amazing. That we have tackled car and personal injuries insurance costs has changed a significant facet of business in Ireland. The PIAB has been responsible in the main for the changes which have come about. It was a significant innovation for the Government to establish another semi-State organisation at a time when we were starting to reduce their number.

The PIAB, which was framed in 2004, has been very successful in achieving its aims. It has reduced the cost of claims for the consumer. Under the courts system, legal fees represented approximately 46% of claims, whereas current processing costs represent only 7% of awards to claimants. Claims used to take an average of three years to process, but this has now been reduced to 7.43 months, which is a major change. The PIAB has now reached full-flow activity and expects to deliver compensation payments in excess of €100 million annually from 2008. Clearly, the PIAB has been a great success from the points of view of consumers and the courts which no longer have to process the costly and time-consuming cases which are now resolved by the board.

However, a trend has a emerged which was not envisaged in the original Act and a way around the system was devised. Some solicitors will reject an offer made by the PIAB but agree to a similar one afterwards and then charge fees. The Government has therefore had to bring forward the amending legislation.

I understand, and the Minister may be able to confirm, that he consulted the Attorney General who advised that the Bill is constitutional. Circumstances have emerged which require to be remedied. The Bill provides a better deal for consumers by closing a loophole the original Act did not anticipate. If an amendment to address the issue which has arisen makes the working of the PIAB more successful, the Minister is to be commended on making it with the advice of his senior officials and the Attorney General.

I put on record our admiration for Ms Dorothea Dowling, the non-executive chairman, and our colleague, Senator O'Toole, the vice-chairman of the PIAB, who have brought great expertise to this area, as well as for Ms Patricia Byron and her team who have been extremely successful. In the words of a former Taoiseach, they have done the State some service. We commend their work and their running of the organisation.

He lost the vote as well.

Well, he did some service. We will not lose the vote tonight. I have a personal involvement or interest through a family member but it is not a vested interest. The working of the organisation has been exemplary.

Nobody doubts that.

I feel personally involved in this because I was a member of the committee on enterprise and small business which was faced with this dilemma in 2002. Senator Cassidy, who was a Deputy at the time, was chairman of that committee and former Deputy Martin Brady was vice-chairman. The committee spent many hours of work on this. We were most impressed with the strong submission made by Ms Dorothea Dowling. It was as a result of her submission and the impact of the previous Minister and the present Minister that the PIAB came into being.

The Minister, given his responsibility for trade, will be aware of the effect of this legislation. This is the first Bill the Minister has brought before the House since his re-appointment as Minister. I commend the Bill to the House, and hope it will be unanimously agreed by the Members. It is in the best interests of consumers. Solicitors have found plenty of work opportunities. They can be more constructively engaged in important legislation. There is an amount of registration work available with regard to new properties and the proper registration of those properties and of wills. The running of legal practices has changed slightly given that this lucrative cash cow is somewhat removed. Nevertheless, I have not met any hungry solicitors or barristers recently. They are surviving quite well on the work that is available. In this area, our concern is the consumer.

I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation before the House. My colleague and fellow Kerry man, Senator Coghlan, accused the Minister of rushing the legislation but if I had my way, it would have been before this House last April. Far from being rushed, the Bill was published last April and there have been newspaper articles about it over the last three months. Everybody has had a chance to examine the legislation and offer their view.

I must declare a vested interest in this as I am vice-chairman of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. I am proud of what it has achieved and to have been part of that. My colleagues, Senator Leyden and Senator Coghlan, have also made a huge contribution. We might have differences of opinion with Senator Coghlan tonight but that does not take from his committed interest in this.

First, I will clarify what we are doing tonight. We are correcting an issue in the Bill. The Minister will be aware that the PIAB conducts a constant assessment of how the legislation works and its efficiency. It is our hope that, perhaps, towards the end of next year we might examine this and decide whether some things need to be changed. There will be time for consultation with all groups and the joint committee on enterprise and small business might deal with it at that stage.

I will explain what happens in simple language. The PIAB goes through a process and arrives at a figure, which is offered to the claimant. That might be the end of it; the claimant might accept the figure and the case is over. However, because of another court award, we are unable to deal directly with most of the claimants. Now, the solicitor claims that he or she might be happy with the amount being offered but is not happy with the legal costs. The costs are sent to be taxed, assessed and paid by the registrar. We are effectively dealing with a situation where there is a cost of up €1,800 being placed on something which we assess as being worth €80. This is one of the issues raised. It does not deny anybody his or her day in court. It goes further than what the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Business and Small Enterprise discussed, which was that if somebody goes to court and does not receive a higher award he or she should not get costs, which is the format in other court cases.

To reply to Senator Coghlan, in cases which go to court the assessment work of the PIAB with which the solicitor has no engagement is now valued at up to €1,800 and is added to the costs. We are going backwards. I wish to recall the debate we had in 2004. Both sides of the House were completely misinformed by information.

Prior to the debate, Mr. Conor Maguire of the Bar Council came before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Business and Small Enterprise and told us the answer was to make personal litigation what was termed a "lawyer-free zone". He introduced this phrase to the debate. I and my colleagues, Patricia Byron as chief executive, and Dorothea Dowling as chair of the PIAB, are accused of having a go at legal people. We want to work the legislation as it exists. At that stage, Mr. Maguire said the projected costs to the State would be between €10 million and €30 million per year and that the number of people required to run it would be 200 or 300.

There is no cost to the State. The PIAB is self-sufficient and self-funding and will continue to be. It has a maximum of 85 employees at full flow. During the debate on the original Bill, Fine Gael Senators made impassioned debate about how difficult it would be for claimants to go before the PIAB and make their cases without solicitors. I had to explain to my colleagues this would never happen because it was a paper engagement only and was like sending in one's car registration form.

I had to hold the hand of my colleague, Senator Leyden, after the debate because he was extremely concerned. He had spoken to local solicitors who thought they would be out of work. I am glad he made the point today that they have plenty of work. The view stated was that the PIAB was established to get rid of lawyers and that they would have no more work. This was despite the fact we stated at best 25% of cases would go to court whereas at the time only 10% went to court because 90% were settled. A threat to lawyers never existed.

I have one message for lawyers. Nobody understands the law better than them. What the PIAB does is implement the law of the land. If they have war it is with us as legislators and me as a Senator. It is not with the PIAB or the people doing the work. They are simply the messengers of us, the legislators.

In the Minister's speech, he stated the PIAB is challenged regularly and the Government will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the board is not undermined in its work. I ask the Law Society who will receive a report on it to read this. It is simple, primary school sixth-class English. This is the will of the people and the legislators and it will operate. If difficulties exists they should sit down with us and tell us what are those difficulties and we can work them out. We do not need to be at war with each other.

We have reduced from three years to seven months the settlement of cases. Is there anything more to be stated? I have high regard for the views of my colleague, Senator Coghlan, on this general issue. If difficulties exist I want to hear what is the solution. He made a valid point on the premia. Unfortunately, the PIAB does not have any control over premia. Senators Leyden, Coghlan and myself as members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Business and Small Enterprise have a role in it. We started on that road. All of the insurance companies came before the committee and were asked about their profits.

We also indicated that we would like more people in the market. At this stage we can do no more. The premia have reduced. However, may I state gently to my colleague Senator Coghlan it is incorrect to state a U-turn on the right of appeal has occurred.There is no U-turn on the right to appeal. What we are saying is that if people go to court their costs should be awarded on the basis of the work of the solicitors in the court or attached to the court case, not attaching to the work done by the PIAB. If this legislation is not passed this evening we would go backwards.

I remind the House that prior to 2004 not a month went by in this or the other House when a Member did not stand up and cry about their neighbour's child, their nephew, or son or daughter who was either unable to get or had to pay €3,000 per year for basic insurance cover. We knew those people and we talked about them. Senator Coghlan and I mentioned them. People starting up businesses had to self-insure, they had to carry the risk themselves because they could not get insurance cover. That is only four years ago and we are not going back to that time.

In regard to consulting with the Attorney General, I presume the Attorney General has seen this legislation. I know he would have to have seen the legislation but I would like to hear the Minister put that on the record and that we are not making this up as we go along. This is pro-consumer legislation. What have we done? We have reduced the time taken to process a case from three years to seven months. We have reduced the cost of premia to 1999 rates. We have saved the State approximately €45 million. Each one of those euro can be multiplied by eight. Apart from not costing the State anything, the PIAB has one third of a billion euro and is at full flow and meeting every target.

Much debate took place in the media before Christmas to the effect that we would never reach full flow. Misinformation was put out that we would need to deal with 200 odd cases per week and that we were dealing with an average of only 45 or 50 cases or whatever. I told the House that was not the case and that, in fact, we were close to that number. We have now reached that number and have met all targets and are still assessing where we are going.

The Minister need have no worries. The team running the PIAB come under extraordinary scrutiny from its board, month after month. As chair of the finance committee, I can assure the House we are getting value for money, that there is a constant assessment of costs and that the PIAB is delivering on every target and on every key performance indicator we have set up.

The PIAB is pro-consumer and is doing the business. It exists for us and for the people. It is a winner for everybody, including the lawyers. The lawyers have not been put out of business nor will they be. It is in nobody's intention to do that. Our intention was simply to deal with cases that never went to court in any case. People said we should deal with cases that do not need to go to court. I could give the Minister 12 examples on the lack of stress. A number of people who have gone through the PIAB process have told me they were dreading the thought of going to court, of having to give evidence, of being cross-examined and so on. There is a great sense of relief and freedom from stress.

I am the ICTU nominee on the PIAB. From a worker's and an employer's point of view it gets people back to work earlier. It means people do not have to stay out of work for two years until the case is over. I could speak for a long time on this issue. I compliment the Minister for putting the PIAB in place. It has met all targets set by the Oireachtas. I wish to reassure Senator Coghlan that all the problems he has raised can be dealt with. The point he has made, which has not been dealt with, in regard to the profits of the insurance company is a valid one. It is not an issue for the PIAB but for the incoming joint committee on enterprise and small business. The outgoing chair of the former committee has made it the next target to be dealt with. We have had the insurance companies come before the committee, we have asked the direct questions and looked at their accounts and have insisted that they make information available to the PIAB. There are also other difficulties which we are dealing with under the PIAB but we will not deal with them this evening. Under constant attack from all sides we want the Oireachtas to understand that we are doing what the Oireachtas sought of us.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is important, effective and key to the continuing success of the PIAB.

I also support the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (Amendment) Bill. As a member of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, I was proud to have been part of the group that took submissions and played some part in the establishment of the PIAB. I remember those submissions and I remember jobs being lost at the beginning of the last Dáil and this Seanad because people could not get insurance. Even if they were prepared to pay the large premiums, businesses were closing and we needed to take action. The Government took positive action and the PIAB is one of the great successes of the last Dáil and this Seanad.

The provisions of the Bill are as follows. Section 1 provides that two new sections are added to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. The new Section 51A provides that where a claimant rejects a PIAB assessment that has been accepted by a respondent and where he or she fails in any subsequent proceedings to get more than the amount of the PIAB assessment, he or she will not be entitled to legal costs. Section 51B provides that no legal costs shall be allowed for the making of an application to the PIAB. There are no costs to the Exchequer as a result of the provisions of the Bill.

International interest in the PIAB model is encouraging. It seems that Ireland is once again the inspiration for how others might do things better. It is one of the non-financial benefits of the new alternative. Even more satisfying is the growing evidence that those who are entitled to compensation are getting their money more quickly without the stress of adversarial litigation and in the broader context without society paying the bill for avoidable costs often involved in the old system. This is not to deny the most important role of the courts. It is solely the preserve of the Judiciary to administer justice in cases that are defended. Such challenges still arise, either on the basis of liability for the accident or to attack the extent of damages alleged, especially with the new provisions on exaggerated claims under the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004.

The PIAB is but one part of the Government's insurance reform programme but its success has extended beyond the role of the statutory assessors making awards on cases within its remit, as it is clear that a new culture has developed. Gone, or at least departing, are the days when potential defendants denied everything including the actual occurrence of an accident which even they themselves may have witnessed. This has been replaced with a more realistic, if only pragmatic, approach that there is little point in incurring substantial litigation costs on a case that a judge is not likely to dismiss when the alternative now exists of an early resolution to the benefit of the injured party as well as the financial benefits to respondents, many of whom are now insured at a lower cost than in the last century. This can be only good for the health of the Irish economy especially with the new competitive challenges ahead in the expanded EU context.

The PIAB has focused on facilitating early resolution of claims and this has been achieved by facilitating effective communication between the core parties, those injured and those liable to pay compensation. It is clear that redress is best served by prompt investigation, required by the PIAB 90-day timeline, and a non-adversarial system which focuses on compensating victims of personal injury accidents and those responsible. The lower volume of cases involving dispute over liability are released by the PIAB for adjudication in the courts.

The impact of the PIAB on society is most evident in our review of the Courts Service data where 15,000 High Court writs were issued in 2004 compared with 750 in 2005. The figures are more compelling in the Circuit Court where some 20,000 civil bills in respect of personal injury claims were issued in 2004 and approximately 3,000 in 2005. This is significant and permits the courts to focus on the wide range of other cases which require court time.

Regarding savings on the cost of delivering compensation, the PIAB confirms a saving of €4 million on litigation costs in 2005. At the time of releasing the PIAB report in 2006, this figure had moved to €13.1 million in July 2006 and projecting those volumes conservatively this figure was expected to rise to more than €20 million at the close of 2006.

The work of the Minister, the Department and the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, and the resolve of Oireachtas to introduce the PIAB deserve our continuing support. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I took on board what the Oireachtas joint committee recommended during the previous Dáil. This Bill is not being rushed. There was disappointment we did "rush it through" the last Dáil but I was anxious to have the legal position thoroughly examined and to make sure the advice I received was considered. The Bill has been overseen by two Attorneys General and we are well aware of the issues raised by the Law Society and Senator Coghlan. As Senator O'Toole stated, the right to go to court has never been denied.

I am surprised by the Fine Gael position. There was a great deal of jousting during the previous Dáil about rip-off Ireland and Fine Gael's wonderful website. However, Senator Coghlan's contribution would suggest the website will come down quickly.

I am not up to speed with the website.

The legislation is about preventing the rip off of the consumer or the system. It provides for efficient and effective services and competitive approaches to the way issues are addressed by society. Much will be said in the coming months and years about the threat to competitiveness in Ireland but the theme of analysis conducted by the National Competitiveness Council and other bodies is similar. They are saying the domestic economy is still not competitive enough and competitive forces have yet to be unleashed. While the FDI sector is productive and competitive, the domestic sector needs more competition. That is why we abolished the Groceries Order, to which there was much opposition. The PIAB is a good illustration of how the Government and the Oireachtas can bring in new mechanisms and approaches that are more efficient and competitive, which reduce costs for businesses and ordinary people. The board has achieved this dramatically.

Senator Leyden referred to the number of businesses and people complaining about job losses because of cost issues in the economy. However, the costs involves in these cases are not needed and, as Senator O'Toole said, this is simple stuff. The day is long gone when bills of £1,800 were racked up for form filling in such cases. That is no longer sustainable or tenable in a modern Ireland, which must be competitive in the global environment. Senator Hanafin articulated the economic impact of the legal changes.

I pay tribute to Senator O'Toole for his role as vice-chairman of the PIAB, where he was very effective. Both himself and Dorothea Dowling, the chairperson, have given some service to the State, as Senator Terry Leyden said. However, PIAB claimants receive their compensation in a non-adversarial system and this cannot be overstated. A client attended my clinic recently and I had to tell him I could not act in the case because of the challenge to the PIAB, which is in the higher courts. We cannot say to people that they should not do X, Y or Z. The client to whom I spoke is under enormous stress to have his personal injuries claim addressed. That is replicated throughout the system. However, the PIAB has removed much of the stress and trauma for claimants because they do not have to wait impossibly long times for the resolution of their cases.

Processing costs under the board are calculated on a fixed cost basis and they are 70% cheaper than under the old litigation system. On accepted awards, actual savings of €45 million have been made to date. These savings occurred without any diminution in the size of awards to the injured parties. The board promotes the early settlement of claims to a service centre, which is open six days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

By facilitating contact and the exchange of papers between the parties, it is estimated that 40% of claims are resolved before assessment by the PIAB. To date the PIAB has made over 10,000 assessments and it has delivered its assessments, on average, 75% faster than the law courts. The average time frame for an assessment to be made is 7.4 months from the date of consent, which is extremely favourable when compared to 36 months under the old system.

It has freed up the courts. The number of High Court cases has reduced from over 15,000 in 2004 to approximately 2,500 in 2006. Need we say any more than that? The estimated numbers of personal injury cases in the Circuit Court have fallen from 20,000 in 2004 to 5,000 in 2006.

I note Senator Cassidy has joined us this evening. When he chaired the relevant Oireachtas committee he did enormous work on the insurance question, and he knows the impact this legislation has had. Monthly insurance cost indices produced by the Central Statistics Office show that the cost of consumers' motor insurance is now at May 1997 levels. It is an extraordinary story and it is very rarely one can point to something like this, with the cost being brought back to the level of ten years ago.

These are significant benefits to claimants and society as a whole. There will be no going back to pre-PIAB days. I reiterate that the Government stands four square behind the PIAB in its efforts to make this work. The Oireachtas entrusted this task and these set of objectives to the board in terms of its interpretation of the will of the people to do things better in Ireland, to do them more simply, more efficiently and more effectively.

I mentioned motor insurance. Data from the CSO also shows that the cost of home insurance in May 2007 has dropped to below November 2001 levels. A report on RTE's "Drive Time" in November 2006 also indicated IBEC's view that employers' liability insurance costs do not represent the burden they once were. Those are very significant factors, outcomes and outputs from this project.

The PIAB offers an independent and impartial monetary assessment of damages based on medical evidence in a non-adversarial document-based system without the need for an oral hearing. Claimants can be assured that the amount of damage reflects what is awarded in the courts and it is a matter for each claimant to either accept or reject this fair and impartial assessment. If they decide to reject this assessment and enter the litigation route, they must be aware that there are risks regarding legal costs.

There is no intention in this amendment to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act to interfere with claimants' rights of access to the courts. However, the Bill is entirely consistent with the objectives of the principal Act, to prohibit in the interests of the common good the bringing of unnecessary legal proceedings. I believe the Act and this Bill to be definitively pro-consumer in so much as it highlights the cost risks in taking legal proceedings and it contributes, and will continue to contribute, to lower insurance costs.

At this stage I appeal to Senator Coghlan and Fine Gael to withdraw the opposition, as it is misplaced. Their stance seems anti-consumer and against the best interests of the common good and our overall desire to make our system more competitive, effective, and above all, non-adversarial for the thousands of claimants in the country.

Question put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?