Thursday, 10 May 2012

Whiplash reform: slanted to the insurance industry’s benefit

I was delighted to see that The Lawyer published my blog from last week, in which I criticised the bandwagon to dismiss whiplash. Delighted, yes, but despite some welcome extra publicity I do not feel that it is right to leave this issue alone.

The fact is that the government’s drive to ‘reform’ the way that whiplash claims are dealt with will leave anyone who has suffered a genuine injury feeling guilty if they make a claim, or, worse, unable even to make a claim in the first place. But what is even more worrying is the way in which the statements like that of Jack Straw, writing in The Times last week, are uncritically accepted.

Do a google search of ‘whiplash reforms’ and the newspaper headlines that come up are almost all slanted in favour of insurers, as if to accept, without any analysis, Straw’s statement in his Times piece: “Everyone I’ve met in the whiplash industry knows that they’ve been rumbled; that the game is nearly up.” The Labour MP for Blackburn wrote of his pleasure at “ministers’ determination tackle this issue”, in terms that were as pejorative as they were wrong. Whiplash claims apparently depend on “very flaky medical evidence submitted by practitioners with a vested interest”. It is supposedly “too easy to establish liability in whiplash claims”. All in all, they amount to “scandal” which only Parliament can put right. No surprise, then, that Mr Straw cites a book whose very title shows that it is likely to be biased rather than objective: Whiplash and Other Useful Injuries, by Andrew Malleson.

But talk to informed claimant solicitors, GPs and medico-legal experts who deal regularly with whiplash caused injury and you will find a very different view. For those of us at the coalface – for those of us who deal with the reality of the person whose neck has suffered real trauma in a road accident, through no fault of their own – whiplash is a real and debilitating condition. What surprises me, in newspaper coverage of the issue, is the way that journalists seem to accept that whiplash is inevitably ‘bogus’. Why is this? And do the journalists promoting  this line not understand that in doing so they are championing big business rather than the man in the street?

It is all very well for the likes of Jack Straw and other opponents of whiplash to say that it is driving up the cost of motor insurance premiums. But does anyone really think that insurers will suddenly drop the cost of those premiums if and when the government makes it all but impossible to bring a claim for low velocity whiplash incidents?

An oft-ignored fact gives the lie to this: since the introduction of the road traffic accident portal in 2010, insurance premiums have, according to the insurers analysis, been increasing above the rate of inflation. This is despite some  estimate  £500m in legal costs being  saved by the insurance industry since the establishment of the portal. That being the case, how can we seriously believe that insurers will pass on costs savings to motorists as a consequence of so-called ‘reforms’ to whiplash claims?

Past experience tells us its not guaranteed. The real scandal is not that people make claims for whiplash but that so few people (and certainly, no one in government) are prepared to peel away the layers in this debate and confront the truth: reforms to whiplash are geared to insurers’ benefit.