This article first appeared in Business Insurance UK, 22nd April 2020
“The government has considered representations from key stakeholder groups and agrees that now is not the time to press ahead with significant transformational change to the personal injury sector.”
Those were the words of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland yesterday in his written statement to Parliament which was also made in the House of Lords. Providing an update on the implementation of the whiplash reform programme, the MP said it’s been decided to further delay to April next year.
Buckland explained: “The government indicated on February 27, 2020, that after careful consideration it had decided to implement the whiplash reforms in August 2020. However, it is apparent that the current COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the medical, legal, and insurance sectors.
“While the whiplash reform measures remain important, the government is committed to acting to ease the disruption and pressures caused by the COVID-19 outbreak where it can.”
The Lord Chancellor added that the postponement will enable key sectors to focus their energies on delivering their response to the coronavirus crisis while at the same time allowing the government to zero in on delivering crucial services in the justice area during this difficult time.
Welcome news but…
For the most part the announcement drew positive comments from trade groups and legal circles, although some brought up important points surrounding the timeline adjustment that have to be considered.
“Given this unprecedented situation, we understand that a delay to implementing these much-needed reforms is necessary,” stated Association of British Insurers (ABI) general insurance director James Dalton. “However, any delay beyond what is absolutely needed will impact on the benefits to claimants and consumers.”
For APIL (Association of Personal Injury Lawyers) president Gordon Dalyell, all would be for naught if the things that need addressing aren’t resolved.
Dalyell asserted: “Delay is welcome, but another arbitrary date for these reforms to be implemented is meaningless unless critical issues are addressed. The new claims portal lacks vital safeguards to ensure injured people are able to gain access to justice.
“Without alternative dispute resolution, the portal will leave unrepresented injured people in a very vulnerable position if liability or the value of the claim is disputed. Injured people will be expected instead to switch to the small claims track, which is simply not designed for these types of disputes.”
On their website, the APIL president stressed that “finding workable solutions which will leave injured people with some hope of justice” should be high on the agenda.
Meanwhile some found the postponement sensible, given the current circumstances.
“This sensible decision will be very welcome news for claimants and the sector,” commented Paul Nicholls, chair of MASS or the Motor Accident Solicitors Society. “With everyone struggling with bigger issues right now, this delay will hopefully provide time, when it is appropriate, for a proper debate on the many outstanding issues yet to be resolved.”
Glen Eastwood, managing director of claims business MSL, used the same word to describe the move.
“That seems like a very sensible step given the huge uncertainty and incredible challenges we’re all facing just now from COVID-19,” he said in a Linkedin update. “Gives the MoJ time to deal with the long list of outstanding issues around implementation and then all other interested parties an opportunity to properly plan for the new world.”
Concurring, Minster Law chief executive Shirley Woolham also welcomed the Ministry of Justice’s decision to reschedule the launch of the small claims portal to April 2021.
“Insurers and claims firms alike have made clear in recent weeks that a delay is essential while the industry focuses on looking after customers during the COVID-19 crisis,” noted Woolham in a statement sent to Insurance Business. “We’re pleased that all sides of the industry have been joined up in calling for a delay, and that ministers have listened.
“This further delay will hopefully afford to the government, MoJ, and MIB (Motor Insurers’ Bureau) alike the time needed to ensure the portal works for customers.”
Sharing similar views, Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO) executive director Matthew Maxwell Scott said preparing for the portal’s launch meant firms were diverting significant investment in human resource and technology away from the crucial challenge of helping consumers and staff get through the pandemic.
“This can now be focused on working with insurers and other stakeholders to make sure the wheels of justice continue to turn and ensuring injured people get the support they need,” he declared in an emailed statement.
“The remaining consumer safeguards required for the portal to operate effectively must also be given proper attention now that we are no longer rushing towards an artificial August deadline.”
Ironic yet inevitable
First4Lawyers managing director Qamar Anwar sees the latest development as somewhat ironic.
In a statement sent to Insurance Business, Anwar had this to say: “There is a certain irony in the government delaying an online system when everything else in the world seems to be going online. However, today’s (April 21) announcement was inevitable as the Ministry of Justice has dragged its feet in making the decisions needed to meet the April implementation date.
“And quite frankly, the MoJ’s focus right now should be on helping the many areas of the sector that are in crisis.”
Anwar also emphasized that when the reforms are back on the table, it must be ensured that the new rules are published and all outstanding issues with the claims process are settled so that businesses are given the proper time in terms of getting themselves ready.
“When the time is right, we will also need reassurance that plans have been laid for a much needed public information campaign – these reforms are bad enough for injured people without them being left clueless on the changes and how even to access the process,” added the MD.
Meanwhile ABI’s Dalton expressed: “As an industry we remain committed to continuing to support the Ministry of Justice so that the reforms can be introduced as soon as it is practical to do so.”