Let Rome burn - we’re off on holiday!
That noise you can hear is MPs stampeding for the exits. Yes, today is the first day of their summer recess/holiday, just 36 days after their last (three-week) break.
Expect to see a politician pitch up at a dreadful seaside resort near you, smiling for the staycation photo opportunity before fleeing quick as a flash to a Tuscan villa. Our leaders at the good ship Ministry of Justice have left a particularly long to-do list. We had expected announcements on the RTA portal, small claims court and fund of last resort for asbestos disease sufferers (though this was in the hands of the DWP).
But the summer recess came with barely a whisper from MoJ HQ. They probably even forgot to put their out-of-office on. In effect, they have tidied the house before the holiday, but stuffed all the junk under the sofa. None of the unresolved issues has gone away, merely hidden out of sight and left to fester until September.
In politics, ‘twas ever thus. But solicitors cannot afford to wait around for newly-bronzed politicians to make pronouncements from on high. From next April, the legal world will be turned upside down. Cuts to legal aid will take effect, the no win, no fee structure will be radically altered, referral fees will be banned and employer’s and public liability will be shifted into the fast-track claims processing scheme. Each could be a destabilising issue for smaller firms, but collectively it represents a tumultuous upheaval that will require new business plans and staffing changes. By September, firms will have seven months to tear it up and start again - they could do with a little guidance sooner rather than later.
What the MoJ did confirm on Tuesday was the deadline (April 2013, naturally) for extending the RTA portal to include EL and PL and raise the limit to £25,000. Instinct has always suggested these changes are too hasty, coming just two years after the electronic claims system was founded, often with mixed results.
Now there is an expert who agrees - and in a government-commissioned report no less. Word is the MoJ has had Professor Paul Fenn’s assessment of the small claims process on its desk for some time, so the suspicion lingers this was rushed out in time for recess but without the chance for analysis.
Fenn states a whopping 50% of cases drop out of the portal already - and that’s just for RTAs, which are often non-contentious. The nature of PL and EL claims means that many more will shun the process if it’s extended.
Most worringly, Fenn notes that damages have decreased for claimants. This was never part of the deal - indeed insurers were at pains to say they would settle at the same rate in the portal. In eschewing Fenn’s plea for patience, the government is taking the Malcolm Tucker approach to expert advice: ‘you have to know what an expert is going to advise you before he advises you. If not get another one’ (series 2, episode 3 - in my opinion the best yet).
The feeling remains that this department is closed to any opinion but its own. And ministers certainly won’t hear much dissent from wherever they’re spending their summer holidays.
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