Friday 6 December 2019

Chief Justice Frank Clarke clashes with minister over injury awards committee

Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke
Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The country’s most senior judge has warned politicians seeking to influence the work of a judicial committee on personal injury awards to back off.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke said the long-awaited committee would be totally independent and would decide itself how it goes about its work.

His comments came in a statement announcing the make-up of the committee, which is expected to recalibrate personal injury payout guidelines.

Although he did not name any politician, his remarks are being seen as a rebuke of Junior Finance Minister Michael D’Arcy, who has been under considerable pressure from the business sector over high insurance costs.

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The Fine Gael TD said last week that the book of quantum on the top five personal injury claims would be significantly reduced early next year.

Mr D’Arcy told the ‘Business Post’ research from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board would be used to identify the most common injuries that result in claims and these would be dealt with by March.

Michael D'Arcy. Picture: Damien Eagers
Michael D'Arcy. Picture: Damien Eagers

He also said that while it was for judges to decide on the exact figures, it would not be a case of just taking 15pc or 20pc off the top as the level of awards for soft tissue injuries in Ireland is 4.4 times higher than in England and Wales.

But his remarks have clearly irked senior judicial figures, who jealously guard their independence under the separation of powers.

Mr Justice Clarke said that “in the light of some recent publicity” and having consulted other judges, it was incumbent on him “to emphasise the total independence” the law gives the committee.

“Given that independence, and given that the committee has not yet had its first meeting, there could be no basis in fact for suggestions that the committee will necessarily pick the five most common injuries for initial consideration,” he said.

He added there could also be no basis for suggesting the committee would “use any particular research in the course of its work, have results in respect of those five injuries by March of next year, and make an assessment of the compensation for such injuries which would reduce same by more than 15–20pc”.

The Chief Justice said it would be for the committee, in the exercise of its independent statutory function, to decide on all of these matters.

The committee is being set up under the Judicial Council Act, which was signed into law last July. It follows recommendations from the Personal Injuries Commission that a council compile guidelines for appropriate general damages for various types of personal injury.

Mr Justice Clarke said he felt he had to make the comments “so as to avoid any wrong impressions about the full independence” of the council and the committee.

The committee will be chaired by Ms Justice Mary Irvine of the Supreme Court.

Its other members will be Mr Justice Seamus Noonan of the Court of Appeal, High Court justices Donald Binchy and Senan Allen, Circuit Court judges Jacqueline Linnane and Seán Ó Donnabháin and District Court judge Brian O’Shea.

Mr Justice Clarke said the committee had yet to be formally established under the act, but a “committee designate” would meet next week.

He said this would allow for appropriate planning and preliminary work prior to its formal establishment.

Last week Mr Justice Clarke told an Insurance Ireland conference the committee should not be rushed in a way which leaves it findings open to legal challenge.

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