Thursday, 30 August 2012

Simmons v Castle: a small step in the right direction, but sadly that’s all

The Court of Appeal recently declared that general damages in most tort actions are to increase from 1 April, 2013. That’s good news, isn’t it?

I wish it was, but a closer look reveals that it isn’t necessarily so. The Court of Appeal’s judgment came in the case of Simmons v Castle. The endorsement of a settlement between the appellant motorcyclist and respondent car driver saw the Court of Appeal hold that it had an ongoing responsibility and the power to monitor and set the guideline rates for general damages in tort claims, including personal injury actions. Any such rates would be neither rules of law nor practice rules, but judges at first instance should consider themselves bound by them.

Hence, their Lordships ruled in favour of an increase in damages – but only by 10 per cent. The judgment sent insurers calculating  by how much they will need to  increase consumers’ premiums. They, along with the rest of us, had assumed that any increase in general damages would come through the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), also in April next year. But at the same time as insurers lament the guidelines of Simmons v Castle, so do personal injury lawyers who work at the coalface. The fact is that 10 per cent is nowhere near a large enough increase in rates for damages that have remained static and too low for far too long

This is not just the view of a claimant solicitor. Over 10 years ago, in 1999, the Law Commission Report No. 257 concluded that in cases where general damages exceeded £3,000 they should increase between 50% and 100% (with an appropriate tapering rise for cases where general damages were between £2,001 and £3,000). The Commission found that damages were not generally commensurate with claimants’ losses but also that “the ongoing non-pecuniary effects of many injuries are far greater than anticipated by victims at the time that they receive their compensation.” The Commission’s conclusions were reached after extensive research and an opinion poll on public attitudes to levels of compensation.

This issue was considered by the Court of Appeal in the 2000 case of Heil v Rankin. Regrettably, the recommendations of the Law Commission were not generally accepted. The Court held that in cases where the general damages exceeded £10,000 they should thereafter increase by 33%. However, there would be no increase for cases where general damages were under £10,000.

Little has happened since the Heil judgment. The recommendations of the Law Commission have not been implemented. Meanwhile, the cost of litigation has continued to rise. LASPO continues to wend its way through the legislative process, but there is no sign of provision for well-thought out increase in levels of damages envisaged by the Law Commission – as ought to be the case.

Now, along comes a recommended increase of 10 per cent, originally recommended by Lord Justice Jackson, implemented before April next thanks to Simmons v Castle. In some ways, we should be grateful as some were doubtful such a decision would come at all, but the truth is that as a society we are still woefully under-compensating injured people. We are still a long way from a collective endorsement of carefully considered recommendations which were made by experts, after due diligence and research, as long ago as 1999. The 'Simmons' adjustment does not even counterbalance the LASPO none recoverability provisions. As such, it is a step in the right direction, but that’s all it is.