A group action case pitting thousands of vehicle owners against car giant VW has sparked renewed calls for a change in the law to introduce US-style ‘opt-out’ class actions. 

According to Slater and Gordon, one of the firms running the case on behalf of consumers, more than a million motorists could miss out on justice because of what it called ‘outdated laws’ in England and Wales. 

The firm said the current law, where each complainant is required to bring a case against the defendant, either individually or by joining a group action, hinders access to justice. Adopting the opt-out model applied in other common law jurisdictions would ensure victims get compensation. 

Only in competition claims, where companies are effectively accused of acting as cartels, do consumers in the UK qualify for without having to apply. That measure was introduced under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

Around 60,000 motorists have so far joined VW claim, Slater and Gordon said. However, it is estimated that around 1.2 million people owned the models of diesel vehicles that are the subject of the claim. It is alleged that VW deceived consumers by designing and installing an illegal ‘defeat device’ to manipulate the results of emissions tests. The device, which the claimants say was installed in certain diesel engines, detected when engines were under test conditions and turned on pollution controls that were not employed in normal driving. VW strenuously denies the claims.

A deadline of 26 October has been set for claimants to register for the claim. 

David Barda, associate at Slater and Gordon, said: ‘The law in the UK is not keeping pace with other common law countries, including the US and Canada. UK courts do the best they can with the laws they have, and the opt-out system being used in competition claims shows there is progress being made. But it is up to the government to change the law to reduce the burden on the courts and improve access to justice for UK victims.’

Barda added: ‘In the US or Australia, a small group proves the case and all other victims get a cheque in the post. It’s the most efficient way of serving justice fairly.’