Practitioners have expressed their alarm at the government’s surprise decision to drop a key safety net for litigants in person from whiplash reforms.
The Ministry of Justice today delayed implementation of the RTA claims portal until 1 August, admitting it could not complete all the necessary steps to ensure the scheme was ready for the previous 6 April deadline.
But the announcement also included news that the alternative dispute resolution option for unrepresented claimants has been dropped from the plans. This was supposed to be a free service, funded by insurers, for claimants to secure independent advice where liability was denied or where they felt a settlement offer was too low.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland QC MP said claimants will now be required to take their claims through the courts, with ‘bespoke processes’ developed to help them through litigation.
Gordon Dalyell, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) said the revised arrangements ‘treat injured people with contempt’ and forces them to pay court fees and facing down the lawyers of the person responsible for their injuries.
‘Failure to include an effective and fair way of resolving conflict in the new portal pits the inexperienced individual against the seasoned insurer without a safety net, hoping everything will go without a hitch,’ said Dalyell. ‘It assumes that the injured person will simply accept without question what the insurer says has happened, who is a fault, and how much compensation is fair.’
Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director of campaign group Association of Consumer Support Groups, said the absence of ADR was ‘troubling’ and that the decision directly contradicts previous reassurances by ministers about how unrepresented people would be protected.
‘Regardless of what they say, it will incentivise insurers to deny liability and therefore cut claims costs,’ he added.
The government’s decision to delay the launch of the portal provides a 'welcome pause for thought', said Law Society of England and Wales president Simon Davis.
“It is also encouraging to see that vulnerable parties, including children, motor cyclists and pedestrians, are exempt from both the small claims limit increase and the portal.
“However, there are still important policy decisions to be made about how the portal will work in practice, and it is concerning that alternative dispute resolution has now been removed entirely from this new process. Solicitors – for both claimants and defendants – and the general public will need time to adapt to these changes.'
Meanwhile, James Dalton, director of general insurance policy for the Association of British Insurers, welcomed the clarity about which categories of claimants would be eligible for the portal.
He continued: ‘The insurance industry has designed and delivered an online Portal that will allow people to make whiplash claims simply and effectively without the need for legal representation.
’While it is disappointing that these vital reforms won’t now be introduced until August, the first priority has to be ensuring that the portal works well for consumers from day one.’
The Motor Insurers Bureau, which is responsible for designing and delivering the new online claim process, said the additional time will allow the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to finalise the required pre-action protocol. But a spokesperson added: ‘Provided we have their decisions by early May, and the changes are not too far away from what we’ve built to date, we are comfortable we will be ready for the new launch date.’