Hitting the vulnerable hard

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Proposed reforms of the small claims procedure would deal a devastating blow to justice.

As an essential part of the civil justice system, the small claims procedure is designed to handle low-value disputes, including debt and contract matters. It enables the public and businesses to pursue low-value claims with the aim of resolving them quickly and fairly.

The small claims procedure is not designed for more complex, higher-value cases. This is recognised in that the small claims limit for personal injury is currently £1,000. Many personal injury claims, even at lower value, can be complex and result in an inequality of arms where the claimant is unrepresented and seeking to bring a claim against a defendant who can afford to take legal advice.


Difficult issues relate to liability, causation and medical evidence. If fairness is to prevail it is important to ensure that people who have suffered injury as a result of negligence are able to get the legal advice they need from specialist solicitors.

The announcement in the 2015 autumn statement that the small claims limit for all personal injury road traffic accident (RTA) claims will be raised from £1,000 to £5,000 is therefore deeply concerning. A new limit of £5,000 would mean serious personal injuries, including some facial scarring, would be considered ‘small claims’.

The proposed five-fold increase to the existing small claims limit would deny many thousands of people legal advice and representation by a solicitor. The linked proposal to remove the right to general damages for less serious soft-tissue injuries would have a further and profound impact on access to justice.

Personal injury claims, even at lower values, can include serious injuries arising from the fault of an employer or public authority where legal rights are complex and the injuries caused can be debilitating. Any barrier to victims bringing claims caused by the negligence of another is unacceptable.

In many cases the defendant is a well-resourced company with ready access to legal advice and representation, and able to use its position of knowledge and experience to avoid or under-settle claims. Without legal representation the ordinary person will not be able to assess the value of their case or the injuries they have sustained and therefore may be unable to claim the amount they are entitled to in law.

These proposals are a further devastating blow to UK justice and would hit the most vulnerable in society; individuals who may not have the confidence or the ability to go to court and assert their right to justified and fair redress.

The Law Society is not alone in seeing the issues this proposal could raise. An increase in the small claims limit in personal injury has been considered and rejected by successive governments, precisely for the access to justice reasons outlined above. Lord Justice Jackson in his final report ruled out any such rise. In 2013 the Transport Select Committee concluded that the limit should not be raised as access to justice would be impaired. It expressed concerns that the use of the small claims track could be counterproductive in efforts to discourage fraud and exaggerated claims.

Further, with no recoverable legal costs, the market would be open for claims management companies using damages-based agreements, who could swamp the system by encouraging high volumes of claims to make their businesses viable. This is not in the interest of the public or those with legitimate claims.

The Law Society is gravely concerned about this issue and will be raising it with parliamentarians so they understand the full impact of these proposals on the ability of claimants to seek justice.

We are building the case to show the damage to access to justice for injury victims and joining forces with the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Motor Accident Solicitors Society and others to work to encourage the government to reconsider its proposals.

Catherine Dixon is chief executive of the Law Society

Readers' comments (18)

  • I am delighted that we have a Law Society Chief Executive who is taking up this most worthy cause. Catherine's background and knowledge of the PI sector and her commitment to support the vulnerable and deserving will hopefully ensure any Government ministers and insurers, with vested interests in seeing these retrograde proposals through, are halted in their tracks.

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  • Pigs will fly...

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  • Catherine - we all agree (save for the few nutters that get on here) 100% but how do we make the Government actually listen? I fear they will just ignore you as with previous reforms.

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  • It may be worth pointing out that this reform may result in more accidents. I believe the public is aware that you will only keep your premium low if you do not have an accident - once everyone is aware that 'you can't claim for whiplash anymore' many people will stop maintaining safe breaking distances... Only a thought.

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  • Tailgater's charter!

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  • The vulnerable don't hand out directorships and until they do they're screwed.

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  • Sadly, governments only tend to respond positively when they are hit where it really hurts - in their budgets and ballots. If Catherine is able to harness the collective strength of the profession and prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the proposed changes will be a net cost to our public finances (for example, due to the extra cost to the Courts of dealing with thousands of litigants in person), she will have served the profession well. She will also have increased the chances of the government securing the votes of those people who need expert support to secure justice.

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  • At the risk of being branded one of the 'few nutters', I can't see what the problem is. The Small Claims limit for non-PI claims is £10,000, and exactly the same issues of potentially unrepresented Litigants in Person vs Large Corporations with teams of lawyers also apply. But in general, the system works quite well. The whole ethos of Small Claims is that people/businesses can resolve disputes without the risk of incurring prohibitive legal costs, other than where unreasonable behaviour can be demonstrated and CPR 27.14(2)(g) applies.

    For PI claims under the new proposals, it would be helpful if the MoJ could publish a table of standard damages for various types of injury up to £5,000, as a guideline for potential litigants and District Judges.

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  • David I would respecfully suggest that Large Corporations represent a very small percentage of defendants in civil claims.My understanding is that the vast majority relate to debt claims and consumer disputes.
    In PI ALL defendants are represented by loadsamoney insurers and their solicitors.A fair playing field?Hardly.

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  • John Hall is quite right. Workplace accidents can involve complex issues surrounding for instance the operation of machinery.
    If like me you've listened to a capstan lathe set operator explaining what he does and what went wrong in the operation of the machine then you will understand the complexities involved in even a relatively minor case. And also understand that such a person cannot possibly argue his case by himself in court.

    I also have to say that £5000 for such a machine operator is a vast sum of money and to denigrate such as sum as being unworthy of consideration by the courts is something that could only be done by someone of vast wealth. Someone about whom it might be said that there wealth cloud their judgement in regards to what is and is not in reality a reasonable sum of money.

    Such work accident cases also used to involve complex areas of law too until the government at a stroke removed workers rights to rely upon European regulations. But whereas lawyers can argue that a breach one of these regulations should still ground a claim, I doubt that an ordinary worker would be able to do so.

    And if they don't they will lose.

    And they will because they will be faced by a barrister instructed by defendants solicitors and the defendants legal team will presumably have an understanding of the law.Which an ordinary person simply does not have.

    Will the judge step in to a the litigant in person? Should that be their job? I don't think so.

    I agree with the Chief in what she says but I also agree that nobody important enough to do something about this iniquitous proposal is going to take a blind bit of notice.

    And furthermore in relation to soft tissue injury claims apparently people will be losing the right to claim for them at all in the vast majority of cases. And this in a democracy. You couldn't make it up.

    And we won't have to because incredible as it seems it is just around the corner and no one is going to be able to do anything at all to stop it. I cannot believe that this country has been brought so low in terms of protection of workers at work by a government that purports to speak about a united country.

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