Twenty four years ago, a number of influential and passionate personal injury lawyers formed the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. They formed the association not to look after themselves and their own interests, but to campaign for the millions of people needlessly injured each year by drivers, negligent employers, and careless medics. It was about giving hope of a future to those whose lives had been shattered. It was about care, compassion, and importantly, justice. It was never about the money.
But twenty four years later, injured people are still not getting the justice they deserve. Having made so many steps forward in the fight for justice, the drive to cut costs began to unpick some of the good work we have done. The arrival of the LASPO Act brought about the erosion of damages, leaving injured people with less compensation in their pockets – compensation that they need. Being injured can be life-changing in the worst possible way. It can prevent you from earning money to pay your mortgage, from driving, being able to live a normal life, whether just in the medium term whilst you recover, or, sadly for some, for the rest of their lives.
The introduction of fixed fees in lower value cases, and proportionality rules and cost budgeting in higher value cases had another sinister impact. Some really deserving cases became, at the stroke of a Government pen, simply too expensive to run. We face the spectre of law firms having to turn away deserving,genuinely injured people if the case is more complex, expensive and hard to fight. So who are these victims? Well, all too often we read about the abuse of dementia sufferers in the press. Yet, because the cases are difficult to prove– the sufferer cannot give reliable evidence, and life expectancy is short, so damages are usually low, while the costs of running a case can be too high for it to be allowed to proceed. As a consequence, the most vulnerable in society are being injured with no recompense. Morally, this cannot be right. The injured person is still far too often linked with the notion of fraud. Claiming compensation is too often portrayed as a burden, not a right. Growing claims figures are a disgrace – but when reporting on this fact the media misses the point. The disgrace is the increasing number of people who have been needlessly and thoughtlessly injured.The disgrace is that some employers care little about prevention of avoidable injury, that some of our hospitals and care homes are not always properly resourced, and that our public facilities are not maintained.
And the excuse for this? Cost. Money. And yet we live in a relatively affluent world - a world that chooses to spend money on the wrong things. A world that thinks motor insurance premiums are better spent on flashy replacement vehicles,excessive TV advertising, and price comparison websites rather than looking after the human being injured behind the wheel. We all have choices as to how our money is spent. Together, we can exert pressure on the insurers to find their moral backbone and get their priorities straight.
Martin Luther King once said that he refused to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. I agree. There is sufficient money to do the right thing for injured people – it is just being spent on the wrong things – on meaningless, flippant things that have no real value.
I hope 2013 may have been the end of radical legal reform, and the systemised unpicking of our legal heritage. Even if I’m right, 2014 still heralds the start of a new fight for APIL. Our fight has always been about justice. This year, the fight is even more about changing the perceptions of the decision-makers and the influencers in Government and getting them to see things our way. We want to deliver something tangible and real for the injured person – respect.