MPs must protect access to justice for working people on Tuesday
On Tuesday, 23 October, the government will bring the Civil Liability Bill to the House of Commons for its final stages.
The government’s stated rationale for the Bill is to tackle fraud in whiplash claims. Yet measures associated with it - part of a wider ‘package of reforms’ - will increase the small claims limit for all injured people. This raises serious access to justice concerns for working people across England and Wales whose claims have nothing whatsoever to do with whiplash and where there is no suggestion of fraud.
If the Bill goes through unchallenged on Tuesday, the right to free legal support for people injured at work could be lost forever.
Though not on the face of the Civil Liability Bill, associated measures will usher in increases of between 100% and 400% in the small claims limit - below which injured people have to pay their own legal fees.
The limit will rise from £1,000 to £2,000 in all personal injury claims including accidents at work, and to £5,000 in road traffic accidents. The changes threaten access to justice for hundreds of thousands of injured people every year and they deserve to be debated on the floor of the House not hidden from scrutiny in a Statutory Instrument.
If the court’s valuation of someone’s pain and suffering falls below the small claims limit, they will be forced to either pay for their own legal fees - which many will be unable to afford - or fight the insurers and their legal teams on their own in their own time. For many, this choice will be an impossible one and the government’s impact assessment acknowledges this.
Injured people will fear for their job if they go up against their boss and, having probably suffered wage loss from the injury, they run the risk of going into debt to pay legal bills out of their own pocket before they get any of it back. Ultimately, many will be forced to not pursue a claim at all and have to manage their injury and its impact on their life as best they can.
The changes would affect up to 350,000 people a year and put power even more firmly in the hands of employers and their insurers.
Using legislation presented as addressing whiplash fraud to price working people out of justice is not the mark of a government which that has vowed to stand up for the “just about managing” and “up to the strong”.
Like the introduction of fees in employment tribunals, placing barriers in the way of working people who need legal help when they are in a vulnerable position through no fault of their own is an avoidable political quagmire.
Rightly, the government has already exempted vulnerable road users from both the Bill and any small claims increase. Having done so, it is inexplicable why other groups who are unfairly prejudiced by these proposals, including workers and vulnerable groups, such as children and people with mental incapacity are not excluded too.
Is the government more interested in injured horse riders and cyclists than nurses, police officers or teachers who are injured while working?
MPs should make it clear on Tuesday that, while they may rightly want to stamp out fraud, they will also stand up for constituents who are injured whilst working through no fault of their own.
If there was to be any increase it should not exceed £1,500 reflecting the recommendations of the Justice Committee and of Lord Justice Jackson and is based on CPI inflation from 1999, the last time the small claims limit was changed.
Movement on the issue of the small claims limit would not threaten the target of the Bill - tackling whiplash fraud - but would ensure that in cases where there is no evidence of fraud and that have nothing to do with whiplash, injured people will have a chance to be supported in accessing justice.
On Tuesday, we urge the House of Commons to speak up for injured people and stand up for access to justice.