Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Making headway in the labyrinth

Yesterday I appeared before the House of Commons Transport Committee, which sat to take oral evidence on the rising cost of motor insurance. Giving evidence with me were Paul Evans, the CEO of Axa, Andrew Dismore, of the Access to Justice Action Group, and a man who needs no introduction, the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP. I was representing the Motor Accident Solicitors Society (MASS), of which I am the vice chair.

This was the second time I’d attended a select committee meeting. In November 2010, I gave evidence before Louise Ellman MP, who is the chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee. Then, as now, I found that the experience of engaging with Parliament has its Kafkaesque moments.

As in the Czech novelist’s great novel, The Trial – which sees Joseph K search fruitlessly for justice, having been arrested for a reason that is never specified – the splendour of the surroundings is inescapable. The Palace of Westminster, where I gave evidence in 2010, is awe-inspiring, both in its sense of history and architecture. Portcullis House, where yesterday’s hearing took place, is rather less grand but still has an august flavour, perhaps because of its name: it is so called after the chained portcullis used to symbolise the Houses of Parliament on letterheads and official documents.

But for all the grandeur, the business of actually appearing to give evidence isn’t easy. Last year, it seemed as if I was asked to wait interminably outside an apparently limitless number of doors, rather than ushered directly to the Committee. It was only by dint of determination that I managed to find the room in the Palace of Westminster in which the Committee was sitting. This year, the venue was changed (from the Palace to Portcullis House) at the last minute – but no one thought to tell me. It’s almost as if because everyone within Parliament knows the drill, they forget to tell the rest of us.

Jack Straw, indeed, is a man who knows Parliament like the back of his hand. Perhaps this gave him the confidence to breeze into the hearing a few minutes after it had started; certainly, I was in the midst of introducing myself when he arrived.

Attending a hearing in the company of a heavy hitter such as Jack Straw means that one has to be determined to be heard. Here, my previous Select Committee experience stood me in good stead. I felt that I made MASS’s point: that unless the Government tackles systemic failings within the personal injury industry, a ban on referral fees alone may do more harm than good.

Moreover, albeit that I have long campaigned for a ban on referral fees, I have also consistently said that implementing the ban needs to be handled with great care. Accordingly, a key component of any ban will be adequately defining what a referral fee is, and consequently what it covers. For example, will the Government include ancillary services which are also involved in personal injury claims, such as car-hire companies, in the ban? There are also a myriad of questions over advertising standards and data protection, with unsolicited texts, cold calls and adverts which encourage litigation, being used to the detriment of the public and the injured party alike. We also need answers as to what the advent of Alternative Business Structures will do to the personal injury system. Could a claims management company (CMC) or insurer take over a law firm? Market rumour is indicating that a vast majority of CMCs have expressed interest in doing just that when the time comes.

All these issues, not to mention the practice by which insurers intercept claimants before they have access to independent legal advice, need to be addressed. If they’re not properly looked at, the culture of profiteering in the personal injury sector will continue unabated – and accident victims will be no more likely to obtain justice than Joseph K.

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