Judges delay publication of injury award guidelines

Stock photo: PA

Shane Phelan and Charlie Weston

Judges have decided to delay the publication of new guidelines on personal injury awards after a meeting to discuss the proposals ended without agreement.

The 166-member Judicial Council met virtually on Friday morning to discuss the draft guidelines, prepared by a committee headed by High Court President Mary Irvine.

It had been widely expected the guidelines would be published after the meeting.

However, a number of judges sought more time to digest the proposals and the council will now meet again on February 20 to discuss the matter further.

The proposals are understood to have been outlined in two documents, one of which provided a lengthy outline of proposed new award levels for various types and severity of personal injury.

It is understood that while the committee proposed reductions in award levels, these fell considerably short of the 80pc reduction campaigners have sought for whiplash awards.

Even then, a source said some judges did not agree with the level of cuts being proposed by the committee, thinking them to be too severe.

Ultimately it was agreed that judges would take more time to consider the proposals before making a decision on the adoption of the guidelines.

It is understood the Judicial Council does not plan to issue any statement on the matter at present.

A recalibration of award levels is part the Government’s plan to bring down the cost of insurance premiums and it hopes new guidelines can be in force by July.

The lack of an outcome from the meeting will disappoint insurance costs campaigners, who view a reduction in awards as crucial to driving down premiums.

Insurers have promised to lower premiums if the Judicial Council moves to reduce awards for minor injuries, which make up the bulk of claims.

A Government-appointed commission, headed by former President of the High Court Nicholas Kearns, found that whiplash-type soft-tissue damage awards in Ireland are typically 4.4 times higher than in the England and Wales for broadly similar injuries.

He noted at the time that the Republic has “one of the most generous compensation systems in Europe”.

However, it is understood the judicial committee widened their comparison of award levels to include Northern Ireland along with England and Wales, something that was not raised by legal lobby groups in the past.

This is despite the fact that the Northern Irish market is tiny by comparison the one in England and Wales.

And award levels in England and Wales are set to fall further as new regulations are set to be implemented to reduce them again.

The Alliance for Insurance Reform has been seeking an 80pc cut in the level of personal injury awards being granted by the courts for minor injuries.

It argues that this will reduce the cost of insurance, particularly public and employers' liability cover.

A cut of this size would bring the compensation in line with that being awarded by courts in England and Wales, but still leave it above that awarded in other European countries.

Policyholders have complained that decisions in personal injuries cases are inconsistent and urgently need to reflect international norms.

A recent report by two leading neurosurgeons found that 90pc of patients with whiplash attending a Dublin pain management clinic failed to return for additional treatment once their legal action was completed.

The unpublished finding, from a study of 100 patients of the Mater Hospital pain management service, is quoted in a paper by two leading neurosurgeons as evidence Ireland is experiencing “a whiplash epidemic” requiring urgent reform.