Spring is in the air

The early part of 2017 has seen the pace of costs reform picking up in relation to the introduction of fixed costs in clinical negligence claims and what might be considered to be more fundamental reforms in relation to small personal injury claims generally.

Two major consultations have been embarked upon and the consultation period for the misleadingly entitled Reforming the Soft Tissue Injury (“whiplash”) Claims Process closed on 6th January 2017. A copy of the consultation document can be viewed here: Reforming the Soft Tissue Injury (‘whiplash’) Claims Process.

I describe the document’s title as misleading: as its principal proposed reform is to increase the Small Claims Track limit for personal injury claims, to a level where any claim where damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity is worth up to £5000 will now be treated as a small claim.

Thus a small workplace injury claim, or a tripping claim involving injury sustained on the public highway, will be affected by the principal reform proposed in the paper.

I describe the proposed increase in the Small Claims Track limit as the principal reform, because I regard it as the realistic one. It only requires secondary legislation to raise the Small Claims Track, there is a respectable argument that an inflation based increase at least, is well overdue and the government can avoid the perils of primary legislation, necessary to remove someone’s right at common law to claim damages for a soft tissue injury, or to substitute a fixed scheme of compensation.

It is worth noting as well, that there may be nothing to prevent an insurer or other defendant, from admitting a liability to compensate for an injury and plead an admission that the damages for PSLA are say, £4500, and thus reach a further mezzanine level, where only if damages are worth £5000 more than the admitted sum will a case escape the Small Claims limit.

The consultation contemplates a reform which will undoubtedly affect both the public and that section of the legal profession which depends on the whiplash industry (or small personal injury claims generally) to earn its daily crust.

The latter is not lying down. There have been numerous submissions to the consultation and the progress from here on, is likely to be controversial.

In due course the recent Supreme Court judgment of R on the application of Moseley v London Borough of Haringey [2014] UKSC 56 the leading case on the requirements for any consultation to be lawful will undoubtedly be dusted down and a judicial review of any secondary legislation is likely.

The Moseley case was the first time that the Supreme Court has considered the extent of a public law duty to consult.  This is perhaps surprising: the development of the doctrine of legitimate expectation requiring consultation in such cases as R v North and East Devon Health Authority Exp Coughlan [2001] QB 123 by the Court of Appeal has not escaped criticism in other common law jurisdictions around the world.

In the Supreme Court, the main judgment was given by Lord Wilson: although there are differences between his judgment and that of the other justices who concurred in the result, his reasoning repays careful scrutiny.

Of particular interest, are his comments at paragraphs 27 and 28 of the judgment which suggest that sometimes fairness will require that interested persons be consulted not only upon the preferred option but also arguable yet discarded alternative options. Even where the subject of the requisite consultation is limited to the preferred option, fairness could require passing reference to be made to arguable yet discarded alternative options.

In the Moseley case the subject of the consultation was the Council’s preferred scheme relating to relief from the liability to pay the Council tax, but in order for the consultation to be fair, the consultees had to be aware of the other ways in the which the shortfall in funding which was vexing the Council could have been deployed. The alternative options would not have been obvious to those who were being consulted. The consultation had in fact been positively misleading, by suggesting that there were no other options.

There seems an increasing vogue for public law challenges to alterations to the framework within which private law claims are made or funded: see the recent case brought by the ABI over the discount rate for multipliers in personal injury claims.

I have little doubt that when the government actually announces its preferred option, at the very least, consideration will be given by the various interest groups to a judicial review of whatever measures are to be introduced.

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