Tom Jones is Head of Policy at Thompsons Solicitors.
Tomorrow, the Government will bring the Civil Liability Bill to the Commons for its final stages. The Government says that the Bill will tackle fraud in whiplash claims. Yet measures associated with it will increase the small claims limit for all injured people, raising serious access to justice concerns, taking away fundamental rights from working people across England and Wales and deepening jurisdictional distinctions with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
If the Bill goes through unchallenged, the right to free legal support for up to 350,000 people injured at work every year could be lost.
Though not on the face of the Bill, associated measures to be introduced by Statutory Instrument will usher in increases of between 100 per cent and 400 per cent in the small claims limit – below which injured people have to pay their own legal fees.
If a court’s valuation of someone’s pain and suffering falls below the new limits of £2,000 in all injury claims including accidents at work, and £5,000 in road traffic accidents, 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.
Using legislation presented as addressing whiplash fraud to price working people out of justice is not the mark of a government standing up for the “just about managing” and “up to the strong”.
Placing barriers in the way of working people who need legal help when they are vulnerable through no fault of their own and whose claims have nothing to do with whiplash is an avoidable political quagmire that looks spectacularly misjudged.
Rightly, the government has already exempted vulnerable road users from both the Bill and any small claims increase. It is inexplicable why other groups who are deserving of free legal support when injured – paid for by the guilty party and at fixed costs – including workers, children and people with mental incapacity, are not exempted too.
Is the Government really more interested in horse riders and cyclists than injured nurses, police officers or teachers?
On Tuesday, backbench Conservatives have an opportunity to make it clear that, while they may want to stamp out fraud, nodding through a doubling and quadrupling of the small claims limit to sums that are huge to most voters is a step too far.
Taking away well-established rights doesn’t look good from any perspective. Taking away those rights when there is a sensible alternative that is supported by evidence looks vindictive. We urge all MPs to put working people first on Tuesday and have the government limit any increase of the small claims limit to £1,500 – in line with CPI as well as the recommendations of both the Justice Committee and Lord Justice Jackson.