Saturday 23 March 2019

Shane Phelan: Minister has grasped nettle of costly premiums

Richard Bruton hailed the work of Enterprise Ireland
Richard Bruton hailed the work of Enterprise Ireland
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Anyone who has had to renew their motor insurance lately will tell you it has become a shocking experience.

Premiums have jumped by an eye-watering 30pc on average over the past year.

The industry has blamed many factors for the sudden, and in many cases unaffordable, hike.

These include high legal costs, fraudulent claims, levies flowing from the collapse of Quinn Insurance, and, most recently, the Court of Appeal decision that other insurers must take on liabilities stemming from the collapse of Setanta Insurance.

Another issue of serious concern is the size of awards being made in the courts.

Senior figures at Axa Insurance were so exercised by some awards they brought them to the attention of Jobs Minister Richard Bruton.

Obviously, insurers have their own agenda and want to keep their costs down.

But there was a yawning chasm between what insurers expected to pay out and what was ultimately awarded in the cases cited by Axa.

Mr Bruton was lobbied on the issue as the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) falls under his remit.

An independent body that makes personal injury compensation awards for motor, workplace and public liability accidents, it was set up in 2004 as a more cost-effective alternative to the litigation system.

It has had a positive impact - and an estimated €1bn has been saved since its establishment.

In the decade after it was set up, 70pc of personal injury claims avoided ending up in the courts.

But despite such positive figures, it is clear PIAB is not working as well as it could be.

Significant numbers of people are still suing in the courts. Over 1,500 awards were made by the courts in 2014.

A key issue is the 'book of quantum', a compensation guide produced by the PIAB for the guidance of judges, lawyers and insurers.

The current book is well out of date and it is unclear how much it guides decisions made by the judiciary.

Judges are obligated to have regard to it, but are not restricted to awards within its guidelines. A new book of quantum is being published later this year.

Hard-pressed customers have been screaming out for any measures that will help make insurance more affordable.

So there will be relief in many quarters that Mr Bruton has grasped the nettle and raised the book of quantum issue with the judiciary.

He hasn't gone in with six guns blazing or criticised the judiciary for the manner in which certain cases have been handled.

And he hasn't sought to undermine their independence.

But he has met with the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, in a bid to get judges to "buy in" to the new book of quantum.

This is crucial if people are to be dissuaded from using the courts.

If the PIAB and senior judges end up singing from the same hymn sheet on the size of awards, it will inevitably lead to more PIAB awards being accepted and less people opting for expensive court cases, where costs inevitably end up being absorbed into customer premiums.

It is just one of several areas that need to be targeted to get insurance premiums back under control.

Irish Independent

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