For journalists, the worst kind of stories are those that ignore the ‘opposite’ rule. In other words, where the point being made is so obvious it would be news only if someone was saying the opposite.
The rule was broken this week when we reported that lawyers who represent soldiers in claims against the Ministry of Defence aren’t happy about efforts to ease lawyers out of picture. It’s hardly news that any business would oppose plans to cut off an important income stream.
But in this case the point is no less valid.
It sits uncomfortably to know that the MoD, which would otherwise be the defendant party in any litigation, is seeking to stop claims from ever progressing that far. Again, it’s hardly a surprise they would want to reduce an annual litigation bill which came to £131m in 2018/19 – indeed, to labour a point, it would be news if ministers didn’t want to reduce costs. But who exactly stands to benefit the most: the injured person or the paying party?
The MoD insists it is acting in veterans’ best interests to ensure they receive adequate compensation without the hassle and uncertainty of litigation. There is probably no argument that taking the shortcut to compensation, and bypassing lawyers, will resolve an issue quicker.
But it’s still a leap of faith to believe paying parties can put aside all financial pressures to counter-intuitively come up with an entirely altruistic system which benefits those receiving damages for acts of negligence towards them.
There are parallels with efforts to sideline lawyers in other areas where compensation is paid.
Health ministers have long argued the cost of clinical negligence claims is too high, often seeking to blame claimant lawyers rather than address the underlying problems causing mistakes to happen.
In these claims, there are plenty in the NHS who would prefer a no-fault compensation scheme along the lines of New Zealand. In RTA claims, the government has effectively ceded financial control of a claims portal to the defendant insurers, who are funding the online system that they stand to benefit from.
The overriding message seems to be that claimants can trust those defendants to do right by them, despite very clearly standing to benefit from restricting their access to redress.
All of this would be easier to swallow if the approach towards compensating injured people had not been so hostile from government in recent years. The compensation culture message has been repeated so often that it’s difficult to reconcile yourself to the idea that ministers want the best for those benefitting from such a culture. The MoD is perfectly entitled to defend claims where necessary, but legal challenges have been taken as far as the Supreme Court to stop paying out for certain types of claim. To expect a paying party, having fought so doggedly to limit compensation in recent years, to suddenly act as a generous and accommodating benefactor, is a tough idea to swallow.
Settling claims without a lawyer is a tempting prospect, and of course claimant law firms have their own financial agenda. But it’s a leap of faith to believe paying parties have your best interests at heart.