Personal Injuries Assessment Board (Amendment) Bill 2007: Committee and Remaining Stages.

SECTION 1.
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

There is no argument with the efficiency or effectiveness of the very good work of the PIAB.

I share the Minister's view that Senator O'Toole is an able advocate and that he has done important work as vice chairman of the board. I have great respect for the Senator and for his views.

No one doubts the good work of the board, its achievements in respect of the early settlement of claims or its meeting of other targets. The only point at issue relates to public access to the courts and whether citizens are being frightened off taking the legal route. We are at one with regard to the need to promote a necessary consumer measure. We are all pro-consumer. The only issue that arises relates to a fundamental right and an important constitutional principle. The nub of our concern relates to whether the Bill aims to reduce the power of the Judiciary to make awards in respect of costs and whether this, in turn, could be interpreted as an attack on the judicial power of the State.

I was delighted to hear the Minister state that he has received assurances from two Attorneys General in respect of this matter. I was not aware of that fact. However, we have a serious reservation in respect of the area to which I refer. No one is arguing against efficiency or increased competitiveness. We are at one on such matters. I wish to clarify that my party is only concerned about the fundamental constitutional principle.

Senator Coghlan's remarks are very helpful because they reduce this to a simple issue. For the past four or five years, Senator Coghlan has been a supporter of the work of the PIAB in reforming this area.

I wish to focus on the issue of access to the courts. I reiterate the point I made in 2004, namely, that if the PIAB was doing anything to curtail the rights, constitutional or otherwise, of any citizen, I would be opposed to it. Not only has this matter been examined by two Attorneys General, the board's lawyers have considered it. I assure Senator Coghlan that if there were the slightest indication that the board was curtailing people's right of access to the courts, its members would be unhappy.

The entire point of the PIAB is conflict resolution. It represents a method of doing business without conflict. It offers a mechanism to resolve all those cases in which it was asked why those involved did not settle and in which people were afraid to settle because of issues of liability, etc. Anyone who is unhappy with the PIAB should have no second thoughts about taking a case before the courts. The important thing to remember is that people will not lose anything by doing so.

We were previously obliged to reassure people that if they took the PIAB route, they would not lose anything, including time. We asked the Government to reduce the Statute of Limitations from three years to two so that even if it took nine months to deal with a matter and someone was then obliged to go through a slow courts system, he or she would be no worse off than previously. As matters stand, people are a great deal better off. We took the action I have outlined to reassure those who raised issues such as that to which Senator Coghlan referred.

The next issue that arose was whether the PIAB would make matters more difficult for people. There is no indication that this is the case.

Another aspect of this matter is whether the PIAB is blocking people from accessing the courts. The answer is "No". I assure Senator Coghlan that if that matter is brought to the attention of the board, the Minister will not be obliged to wait because its members will approach him and highlight the fact that a flaw exists and must be dealt with. It will not happen and, under current structures, it is not happening.

If anyone peruses the contributions I have made in the House over the past 20 years, they will discover that I am one of the few Members who does not criticise lawyers in respect of the fees they charge. I never heard of a person who was in trouble seeking a cheap lawyer. Lawyers earn their money when they go into court and I do not have a difficulty with that. They are entitled to whatever fees they command. That is not the issue. The issue is about being awarded costs of, for example, €1,800, to do something we would carry out in our office at a cost of €80. That is a major mismatch. This is all we are trying to deal with here. It is no more than that.

It is important that Senator Coghlan raised the points because if he is concerned about access to the courts, it is our duty to reassure him and give him an absolute commitment that were that to be the case, it would be part of our assessment when we came to reassess and look at this, perhaps towards the end of next year. We always said that we should look at it after it had been in operation for five years and see whether things needed to be tightened up.

In the meantime, the board is now dealing with the issues and I am certain that the proper and understandable concerns of Senator Coghlan are not justified. They do not stand up and it is not a problem. The board is working very well. Perhaps Senator Coghlan has been given some examples of people who had difficulty getting into the courts. We do not know of any.

We should remember that what we are doing in respect of the PIAB and what this legislation is doing falls far short of what I and Senators Coghlan, Cassidy and Leyden asked for in the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. We asked that if somebody went to court to appeal the ruling of the PIAB and was awarded less, he or she should get no costs at all. That was the unanimous view of our committee. It is important to put on record that this does not go as far as that. This meets the need of the day, does not go further by curtailing the rights of people or cutting across them, and leaves them better off than they were before.

I have already made the point that this does not deny the right of access to the courts in any shape or form I have made this point on a number of occasions since the debate began and in my earlier contributions. It simply does not do this, as Senator O'Toole has articulated.

There is a respectful difference of opinion on this issue. The explanatory memorandum states that claimants will not be entitled to legal costs in the circumstances set out. This is an area of concern to me and people on my side of the House in so far as it impinges on or frightens people from going to court or impinges on the right of the Judiciary or limits its independence.

Let us go back to where we were. In my speech, I said that we did not want to go back to pre-PIAB days. We are saying that it does not interfere with the independence of Judiciary in any shape or form. The Act transparently does not do that. I understand where Senator Coghlan is coming from and his fears and concerns but they are clearly not——

I am glad to hear of the Minister's assurances.

The point I am making is that there is another side to this story and there is always balance in these kinds of situations.

Of course, there must be balance.

The balance is this. Let us get real and practical here. Should the system have to fork out €1,800 for something that can be done for €80? That is the beginning and end of this issue. My view is that——

If we can do that without infringing people's civil rights——

That is what we are doing. I take Senator Coghlan's point. We do not want to infringe anyone's fundamental right to pursue cases with solicitors and go to court. Under no circumstances are we doing that. In every walk of life, people take these decisions to go to the courts while being aware of the issues and costs.

I take the point made by Senator Coghlan and know now where he is coming from. I have not read the explanatory memorandum but I know what he is talking about. It is a misinterpretation. Perhaps the memorandum is inelegantly written. It says that people may not have legal costs awarded to them because there was no legal activity. What it is saying is that when somebody fills in a form and sends it to the PIAB, all the work is then done by the board. Everything, including the assessment, is done by the board and a figure is arrived at.

For work already done by the board, lawyers are claiming costs and can receive €1,800 for simply filling out of a form. That is not to say that if it is appealed in the courts, a lawyer is entitled costs. However, they are not entitled to any costs before it goes to court. A lawyer cannot, on top of the costs for running a case, claim a further €1,800 for work already done by the board. This misunderstanding may be due to how the explanatory memorandum is drafted. The Bill does not intend to deny anyone of their legal costs. Costs necessarily incurred in the running of a case will be paid. This provision is to prevent work done by the board for €80 being used by lawyers who then charge €1,800 for it.

I am not arguing on behalf of the legal profession and its right to fees. This is about a citizen's fundamental right and ensuring there is no infringement on the independence of the Judiciary.

Question put and declared carried.
SECTION 2.
Question proposed: "That section 2 stand part of the Bill."

I am opposed to this section.

Question put and declared carried.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question, "That the Bill do now pass", put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.