The government has played down claims by charities supporting asbestos victims that minister Helen Grant agreed not to introduce changes to the compensation regime that they did not support.
Ms Grant met last week with representatives of five charities – the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum, the separate June Hancock and Mick Knighton mesothelioma research funds, Macmillan and Mesothelioma UK.
Ahead of the meeting, the charities expressed their fury at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for adopting “wholesale” the Association of British Insurers’ reform agenda.
According to the forum’s Tony Whitston, at the meeting Ms Grant “assured all of the charities that she would not do anything that would not be welcomed by mesothelioma victims and their families”.
However, the MoJ has insisted that no such pledge was given. In a statement, Ms Grant said: “I was pleased to meet representatives from asbestos charities last week and to have such a constructive and helpful discussion. Their views will be valuable, along with those of others, as we develop our plans for reforms to help sufferers of this awful condition.
“I have asked the groups to respond fully to our consultation so they and others can inform our next steps.”
The news comes as the consultation on the government’s plans to reform mesothelioma claims closes, with the hard-hitting response from the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum accusing the MoJ of striking a deal with the Association of British Insurers to include the latter’s proposals for a mesothelioma pre-action protocol, secure mesothelioma claims gateway and fixed costs, in return for agreeing to a levy to pay for claims, while not putting forward a single claimant proposal.
“We do not expect government to include all the options put to them: it is their prerogative to determine the appropriate options,” the forum said, its response supported by the June Hancock and Mick Knighton mesothelioma research funds, and Mesothelioma UK. “But to exclude even one option from the claimant’s perspective seems perverse.”
The response argued that the consultation “betrays a fundamental misconception of the claims process”. Making a distinction between pre-action and issue of proceedings is misleading, the forum said, as is the suggestion that there is no issue of liability at the onset of the claims process, or that claims are uncontested at the outset.
“The fact that ultimately there is no defence in many cases, is misleadingly interpreted as ‘liability is not an issue and cases are uncontested’ and such cases are therefore candidates for a pre-action protocol.
“This canard lies at the heart of the consultation. The truth is that claims are made in accordance with pre-action procedure, whatever the name of that procedure, and are invariably contested and early liability resisted prior to court proceedings.
“The ABI proposals in this consultation paper have nothing to do with speeding up claims. Early liability could be admitted under the existing pre-action process – it is not. The intention is to take control of the claims process by: falsely describing claims as inappropriate for court action and imposing sanctions for doing so; demanding more information to position the defendant to resist claims; and imposing fixed costs to limit the opportunity for claimants to have fair and expert representation.”
The forum’s proposed alternative to the measures in the bill was for the government to provide adequate funding for all litigated mesothelioma cases to be listed at the Royal Courts of Justice. This would mean a single “specialised, expert court providing consistent, expert decisions” under a cost-effective fast-track procedure.
It also called on the government to end the “unacceptable delay” in bringing into force the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Act 2010 and to introduce legislative parity with the Rights of Relatives to Damages (Mesothelioma) (Scotland) Act 2007, which – unlike in England – allows a case to be settled before the victim’s death.