Saturday 14 December 2019

Shane Phelan: Ten reasons we're all now paying more for our motor insurance

Helen Dixon said the insurance sector was given particular attention (Stock image)
Helen Dixon said the insurance sector was given particular attention (Stock image)
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Much of the debate over rising motor insurance costs has been taken up with the Punch and Judy row between insurers and the legal professions over the cost of claims.

Lawyers say legal fees have come down considerably but this is disputed by insurers, who say high legal costs are adding to premium hikes.

While these arguments may have hogged the headlines, they are just two of at least 10 potential factors which need to be examined.

Motor insurance premiums were too low in the past

It is now widely accepted that in the scramble to increase market share, several companies simply did not charge enough, resulting in hundreds of millions of euro in losses for the sector. Consumers are now bearing the brunt of efforts to return to profitability through the imposition of higher premiums.

Financial mismanagement

The Central Bank believes that a number of insurance companies were overly optimistic about the future, building up unsustainable overheads and following imprudent pricing and underwriting practices. This left companies less able to deal with a rise in the frequency and severity of claims.

Legal costs

Insurance Ireland says the cost of claims, including legal fees, is leading to rising insurance premiums, a claim which is hotly disputed by the legal professions.

The Bar Council says that barristers' fees fell by between 30pc and 50pc since 2008, but Insurance Ireland insists that its members have not seen that sort of reduction in their legal costs.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has said that consumers are being "directly impacted" by the cost of using the legal system to settle disputes and the compensation awards that result.

Increased economic activity

Mr Noonan has also identified the economic recovery as being partly to blame for the hike in premiums.

"Claims frequency has increased as a result of increased economic activity and increasing miles travelled per car," he recently told the Dáil.

Higher award limit at the Circuit Court

A third issue identified by Mr Noonan is the increase in the amount which can be awarded in damages for personal injuries cases at Circuit Court level. The limit was raised from €38,000 to €60,000 in 2014.

The then Justice Minister Alan Shatter believed that this would ultimately lead to reduced legal costs for individuals as they would not need to go to higher courts.

However, Mr Noonan said the move may actually have led to increased costs.

Solvency rules

Changes in regulatory rules mean that insurance companies are required to have more funds in reserve.

With companies unable to raise their reserves sufficiently, due to setbacks in the investment markets, the only other option has been to hike premiums.

The size of court awards

Insurers have raised concerns about unexpectedly large awards being made by judges in certain cases.

One 'relatively straightforward' traffic-accident case cited by Axa Insurance saw an award of €508,000 and legal costs of €220,000 - when the plaintiff's solicitor had initially only sought €150,000 and legal costs had been expected to be just €71,000.

It is too easy to bypass the Injuries Board

According to an internal Department of Jobs analysis, approximately 40pc of board awards are rejected by claimants partly because some solicitors adopt a policy of non-cooperation.

In some cases, claimants are not even turning up for medicals or not supplying loss of earnings information, which are required so that the board can make an informed award.

The consequence is the award ultimately being objected to by the injured party and the case ending up in court, generating additional legal costs.

Traffic enforcement

Successive road-safety strategies have resulted in a dramatic reduction in road traffic deaths, but recent garda cutbacks mean that officers are much less visible and there are fewer checkpoints to deter speeders and uninsured drivers.

Around €58m a year is still being paid out by the insurance industry to cover claims on accidents involving uninsured drivers. This represents around 5pc of all claims, a much higher percentage than elsewhere in Europe.

The Setanta situation

Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal have ruled that the country's 40 remaining insurers can be held liable for claims against motorists who were covered by the collapsed Setanta Insurance firm. These liabilities are expected to be around €90m and will result in insurance premiums jumping €50 on average.

Irish Independent

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