The government has confirmed it has no plans to look more widely at the system for awarding bereavement damages to relatives.
Personal injury lawyers have long complained at the capped level of £12,980 for all claimants in England and Wales – particularly in comparison to the Scottish system where claims are assessed on an individual basis.
Hopes were raised that ministers may look again at the Scottish model after being prompted to make changes by a landmark case. In Smith v Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the Court of Appeal held in 2017 that bereavement awards should be extended to cohabitants where they had been in a relationship for at least two years.
Ahead of the government’s response to the ruling, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers made representations calling for ministers to use this opportunity for a consultation on the system overall. The Ministry of Justice response suggested there is little prospect of that.
‘The government does not accept that the existing provisions on bereavement damages are discriminatory,’ said the response. ‘It believes that the existing system involving a fixed level of award and clear eligibility criteria represents a reasonable, proportionate and practical approach, and does not have any plans for wider consultation on the bereavement damages regime or the FAA more generally.’
The MoJ conceded that an adjustment to the fixed tariff is appropriate to reflect inflation since the previous increase in April 2013, and steps will be taken to make that happen. The required changes to allow cohabitants to claim damages will also be made. But the government made clear that bereavement damages were ‘only ever intended to be a token payment payable to a limited group of people’.
The concept of bereavement damages was put into law through the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, which also gave the Lord Chancellor the power to vary the statutory sum.
APIL has said the current system needs updating and that claimants face a ‘lottery’ based on which jurisdiction they are based in. The fixed sum in Northern Ireland is now £15,100, while in Scotland damages have been set as high as £140,000 in one case.
The claimant lawyers’ group tweeted today it will ‘not let this go’ and said the government’s response was ‘not nearly good enough’.