Friday 23 August 2019

Liam Collins: 'One woman, one mistake and a system that is broken'

Maria Bailey may be a symptom of 'compo culture', but she didn't cause it, writes Liam Collins

Maria Bailey. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Maria Bailey. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The Maria Bailey I met was a frightened public representative and mother of two children who was afraid to meet in a public place because of the abuse she and her family were getting from every direction.

Last week, it got even worse.

Maria Bailey may be a symptom of 'compo culture', but she is certainly not the cause of it.

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The Dun Laoghaire TD who fell off a swing in a trendy Dublin hotel is literally being pilloried in the court of public opinion for a system which the insurance companies, the legal profession, the judiciary and the public have all colluded in allowing to fester for decades.

Many people are justly entitled to compensation for injuries and negligence in Ireland but the real problem is that personal responsibility does not appear to be a factor for those taking, advising and judging such cases.

Yet all the opprobrium for this broken system is being heaped on the shoulders of one woman, because she happens to be a public figure and made a terrible mistake.

Throw in a trendy hotel, a swing, wine and a glamorous ''girlie night out'', and there are all the ingredients for a lot of smart-ass videos and online abuse.

Even her own colleagues have turned on her in fear of being contaminated by association, while other people, including Government minister Shane Ross, find her predicament a vehicle for amusement.

Millions in 'compo' and legal fees are lashed out each year, some legitimate, some dubious, some fraudulent - but a claim, which may or may not be worth €60,000, suddenly becomes a ''national scandal''.

Misguided as she was, Maria Bailey - in one leaked document submitted as part of a proposed action against the Dean Hotel - has done more to turn the spotlight on how the 'Whiplash Willies' of the legal profession, the greed of some of their clients and the generosity of the Irish judiciary, has brought our compensation system into disrepute.

Public anger is justified, but it is incredible that the fire and brimstone of public opinion has been turned on one woman while a procession of people have walked away from the courts very much the richer without a murmur.

For years, the insurance companies fostered the 'compo culture' by handing out money left, right and centre because the cost of going to court was so prohibitive. They didn't usually win their cases because sympathetic judges were all-too willing to hand out large awards - a multiple of what anyone would get in another country - because it helped keep the legal gravy train on the rails.

I remember being in the Four Courts when the compensation claims were distributed to various judges one morning. Those who got the late judge Liam Devally were in the corridors within minutes, settling their cases, because he considered each case carefully and didn't believe in 'compo culture'. It was then I understood how he was able to walk around Blackrock Park most afternoons after lunch - none of the litigants or their lawyers wanted to be in his court.

Okay, the insurance companies have changed their ways and in the last few years have begun to fight back against some litigants and those who make a career of falling over and taking claims.

Some of the judiciary have also begun to get tough with claimants "trying it on", but many are still willing to hand out large sums of money on what appear from media reports to be fairly trivial grounds.

Anyone who reads the newspapers will also be aware that cases are now regularly thrown out or withdrawn because they are actually fraudulent. How many of these bogus claims have been investigated by the Garda, or how many cases of perjury have been taken against people who swear an oath to tell the truth and get into the witness box and tell blatant lies?

There is genuine public disquiet that public parks and amenities like forest walks and football pitches are at risk of closure because of vastly inflated insurance costs driven by high compensation awards. Small businesses are also suffering, some even going under because of sky-high premiums.

All this was happening before Maria Bailey came along.

What is forgotten is that she did have a fall and even if it was of her own making, she wouldn't be the first to lodge a claim for compensation.

Sadly for her, she had not enough savvy to take the €600 proffered by the Dean and get on with her life, personal and political.

Now she is the scapegoat for every bogus claim and her political career is on a ventilator.

Does foolishness, naivete and a whiff of greed qualify you to be totally traduced in the court of public opinion?

I didn't know Maria Bailey before we sat down to talk last Saturday morning. My opening comment to her, which didn't go down well, was "at least nobody died". Possibly being a little bit more politically astute than I, she already saw her career in meltdown.

The woman I spoke to knew that she had made a big mistake by not exercising common sense. Had she taken a step back to look dispassionately at what she was doing, she would have quickly realised that it wasn't worth committing political hara-kiri for what she stood to get if the case ever went to court.

But she didn't. And her court papers including her medical records became public, leading inexorably to scenes akin to the public hangings and floggings of past centuries. As people smirk and share her online humiliation, Maria Bailey's penance must be mentally and physically exhausting.

But a lot of other people, like solicitors, barristers, judges and those who have colluded in establishing the fundamentals that allows 'compo culture' to flourish in this jurisdiction, including the politicians, have no reason to gloat.

Instead of setting up an investigation into Maria Bailey, the Taoiseach should fast-track legislation prepared by Michael D'Arcy, aimed at tackling the underlying causes of compo culture, which has been meandering through the Seanad for 700 days. Judges should be compensating people for genuine injury and punishing the negligence that caused it.

Maria Bailey is far from alone in thinking that just because she had a fall and hurt herself, someone somewhere was responsible and she should get a wodge of cash.

And a final thought - if Ireland is as in thrall to 'compo culture' as we seem to think, who thought it was a good idea to put a swing in a public area near a bar in a place like the Dean Hotel?

Swings and roundabouts should be for the playground and if you fall, tough luck.

Sunday Independent

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