Personal injury claims give rise to misunderstandings and hyperbole. They might be found in a newspaper, or an overheard comment on the train, or a jovial taunt about ‘ambulance chasers’ at a party. We have all heard it somewhere. Lord Young dismissed the so-called compensation culture as a ‘perception, rather than a reality’, but we know that the perception is having a destructive effect. Work to turn around harmful and misguided perceptions is vital.
We are up against rhetoric from the insurance industry, certain corners of the media and not least the government. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has been working on it for nearly 30 years and, like most in the industry, has heard everything from the ridiculous to the sinister. We point out that compensation is not paid for any old accident. We clarify that plenty of schoolchildren are playing conkers in the playground this autumn. We know that the vast majority of sexual abuse claimants are courageous, seeking justice, and not making accusations for the sake of monetary gain. We explain that the NHS’s legal bill is of its own making, for failing to avoid repeated harm. We are fighting a battle against misguided perceptions, not least those held by the government – the perceptions which make a difference. This is where the damage can happen, such as proposed tariff-based systems for whiplash compensation, or fees fixed so low that valid cases become unviable to run.
The government is, of course, under pressure from several angles, but it is undoubtedly influenced in part by a need to get involved when citizens have a problem or a concern. For example, a few winters ago APIL’s press team was busy setting straight a story that people would be liable if they cleared driveways or paths of snow and someone then fell and was injured. We ended up with the government’s populist Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act. It aimed to allow would-be heroes and volunteers to act without fear of being sued even though they had nothing to fear from the law anyway. The government’s objective of encouraging people to act for the good of society without fear of reprisal was laudable. But the issue needed education, not legislation, and the approach carried a risk that it could cause more harm than good, by encouraging have-a-go heroes to act recklessly. It all stems from a lack of understanding about the difference between an accident and negligence.
APIL has produced a booklet called Compensation Explained, a guide to personal injury compensation and its value to society, which is available on the association’s website. The content is a back-to-basics lesson in personal injury designed to be accessible to someone with no prior knowledge of the system. The different heads of damage are explained; what constitutes negligence is clarified; and some of the barriers to justice for injured people in England and Wales are highlighted. Most importantly, it demonstrates the effect an injury can have on an individual, from someone suffering minor cosmetic injuries to far-reaching psychiatric damage.
We strive constantly to remind everyone that at the heart of any debate involving personal injury compensation is an injured person (and their family) whose life has been turned upside down through no fault of their own. The Compensation Explained project is just one part of our education initiative, but we hope the sector can help the messages reach the wider public.
APIL aims for everyone in our society to recognise how important it is to protect the right to redress for needless harm. We must do away with the myths and misconceptions and any hint of vilification of claimants. Anyone who has their life turned upside down because someone else did not take proper care deserves empathy and compensation.
Brett Dixon is president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers