Wednesday 16 October 2019

Get serious about perjury to end 'compo culture'

Fraudulent and exaggerated claims have, and are, being used to prise open the lucrative compensation tap. Stock photo: PA
Fraudulent and exaggerated claims have, and are, being used to prise open the lucrative compensation tap. Stock photo: PA

Pádraig Ó Céidigh

While it is to be expected that people will make a legitimate claim for a genuine injury, insurance was never intended as a means of enrichment for claimants. However, fraudulent and exaggerated claims have, and are, being used to prise open the lucrative compensation tap.

The consequence is that the pricing model used by insurers is simply recalibrated to take account of the increasing cost of claims, and that cost is added to the premiums people like you and I pay.

The CEO of FBD, Fiona Muldoon, put it plainly, saying: "There is no way around it - if we want generous insurance awards, it means accepting higher premiums."

There is no doubting that in Ireland, we have a serious problem when it comes to a 'compo culture'. Many small businesses have had to close because they can't bear the multiplying cost of insurance.

We each have a duty of care that we owe to ourselves and to each other. But fundamental to the compensation culture that has flourished in Ireland is the notion that when an accident occurs, someone else is always to blame - it's never your own fault. With insurers rushing to settle cases early, fraudulent claimants were rarely put through their paces in the witness box.

During the past 12 to 18 months, we have seen more and more instances of insurance companies opting to fight spurious claims in the courts.

We have also seen members of the judiciary becoming increasingly intolerant of cases which are so patently spurious.

An example of this arose last month when Mr Justice Michael Twomey, in dismissing a fraudulent claim, reminded lawyers and doctors to be aware of the risk of their services being used to facilitate the bringing of such claims.

The rationale for putting claimants and other key witnesses into the witness box is to require them to provide their evidence to the court while under oath.

It is the taking of the oath which enables a court to attribute significant weight to testimony given by a witness who has sworn to tell 'nothing but the truth'.

But the number of personal injury cases which have been dismissed as being fraudulent or exaggerated is a clear indication that claimants in these actions have often been less than truthful.

At present, perjury is a common law offence and is one which has rarely been prosecuted. That is why last October, I introduced the Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018 in the Seanad. The Bill seeks to make it a statutory offence for a witness in court proceedings to make a statement which he or she knows is false.

Those found guilty of perjury can face a fine of up to €100,000, or up to 10 years in prison.

At the conclusion of the Bill's journey through the Seanad, minister Charlie Flanagan was fulsome in his support for it.

However, it took eight months for the Bill to be passed by the Seanad and it now awaits its journey through the Dáil.

In order for the Bill to be passed before a general election, it will require the Government to put its full weight behind the legislation, to ensure that it is prioritised.

If this new law is enacted and enforced, it will trigger a dramatic change in the compo-culture mindset which leads people to believe that lodging a fraudulent or exaggerated claim is a 'no-brainer'.

If suspected perjury offences are investigated, and prosecuted, the ensuing convictions will serve as a stark reminder to claimants that they are under an obligation to tell the whole truth - and that to do otherwise will have serious consequences for them.

Pádraig Ó Céidigh is an independent senator and is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and business at NUI Galway

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