Lawyers acting on the new system for dealing with mesothelioma claims will be paid on fixed-fee basis, the government announced yesterday.
There will also be a dedicated pre-action protocol and an electronic portal on which the claims will be registered.
But the plan to automate the process has been strongly criticised by a leading claimant lawyer as an attack on access to justice.
A consultation will be issued in spring 2013, which will cover both the government’s July agreement with the Association of British Insurers to speed up the process of compensating mesothelioma victims, as well as the review required under section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on the effect on mesothelioma cases of the changes to the recoverability.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and terminal occupational disease with an average life expectancy of less than two years from diagnosis. A claim for compensation can take up to two years to settle which means that sufferers often die before their claims are paid out.
In a written statement to Parliament yesterday, justice minister Helen Grant said: “The government considers that it is imperative that these claims are settled quickly and that early payment of compensation is made so as to ease the sufferings of victims of this dreadful disease and give some assurance that their dependants will be financially secure when they are no longer around.
“However, this cannot be achieved without a speedy pre-litigation process, which is why the government has decided to consult on how best to reduce delays in these cases.”
Stuart Henderson, managing partner of the personal injury department at Irwin Mitchell, reacted angrily to the announcement: “For mesothelioma victims already facing up to their devastating diagnosis, this is dreadful news right before Christmas. It is an attack on access to justice and an attempt to force them down a route in which they would be compelled to accept a fast-track, automated process instead of the sensitive case-by-case investigation they and their families need.
“Yet again, as with its plethora of civil justice reforms, the government has listened too much to the defendant lobby – but this time it is people who are dying who will lose out, which is truly shocking.
“Mesothelioma cases by their very nature are complex, often going back 30 and 40 years and involving detailed investigations. Yet the government’s proposals would yet again force innocent people to work within arbitrary fixed cost regimes while their opponents – those representing the companies which allowed their staff to be exposed to deadly asbestos – would have access to the best legal representation money can buy and no restraints on their costs. That doesn’t represent fairness, which is the principle which should underpin a modern justice system.”
While not denying the importance of speedy justice, Mr Henderson argued that the vast majority of delays are caused by defendant tactics. “This will do nothing to address that and could even hand more power to defendants to delay cases until claimants have no option but to settle for less than their case is worth.”