Motor Accident Injury Compensation

– in the House of Commons at 3:54 pm on 11th February 1998.

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Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 3:54 pm, 11th February 1998

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure compensation for persons injured as a result of road traffic accidents. The Bill seeks to remedy a long-standing problem that has been addressed by the House several times since the second world war. The last time was when a ten-minute rule Bill was introduced by Lord Janner when he was a Member of the House. It was the subject of a consultation paper in 1991 by the Lord Chancellor's Department; a report with recommendations followed.

People who are injured in accidents face many problems. First, they can wait a long time for settlement. A wait of at least one year is common, as is a delay of two years, and the period can be much longer. Uncertainty surrounds the settlement; the injured person may not get a settlement or it may be minimal or, at the extreme end of the range, it could be a large and punitive settlement, incorporating heavy damages. Some people are excluded from the possibility of a settlement because of the limitations of their insurance or because they are the drivers of a car and they are not covered.

I believe that the inequality of entitlement to compensation is a problem which is recognised by the entire insurance industry. Many lawyers agree that it occupies a great deal of time in the courts, and much expense, which does not help the people who need compensation.

I should like to describe a case that has arisen in my constituency and has prompted me to bring in the Bill. I shall mention no names, both to protect the sensitivities of the family and because a criminal case is involved which is sub judice. A young woman, eight months pregnant, together with her husband, her sister and her sister's husband, were travelling in their car after doing their week's shopping—just driving along, perfectly innocently, on their side of a country road in East Sussex—when they were hit head on by a large van which had crossed to the wrong side of the road.

As a consequence of that accident, the woman lost her baby and was critically injured. She survived, but at the expense of the loss of her uterus, and is obviously no longer able to bear children. Her sister was also critically injured and has survived only with deformities to her leg, and all the family were unable to work for a long time. In addition to suffering considerable physical and emotional trauma, they suffered great financial hardship and ended up in heavy arrears with their mortgage; but for the understanding of the building society, they might even have lost their home.

That accident happened in June 1996, and the family are still awaiting any compensation. The case also illustrates a problem that arises because, despite the fact that the causality of the accident in terms of what happened is crystal clear—police accident investigation reports leave absolutely no doubt about the cause of the accident—there was a question over liability, because the driver of the van is entering the defence of inculpability, asserting that, because of insanity as a result of a brain lesion, he was not responsible for his actions.

Therefore, the insurers—the insurers of a public body—are denying liability, pending the outcome of the case. If the van driver sustains the defence of insanity, the insurance company is not liable to pay any compensation, and the only recourse that that family will have is to the good will of an insurance company for it to make an ex gratia settlement. I submit to the House that such situations are entirely unacceptable. That is what I seek to remedy.

Previous exercises in this area have been conducted along two lines. One is the no-fault compensation system, such as that in New Zealand. That system is flawed, as one must opt either for no-fault compensation and eschew any chance of proceeding through the courts, in the hope of winning a larger settlement, or forget about no-fault compensation and proceed through the courts. I think that it is wrong to force people to make that choice.

The alternative, on which the Bill is based, is to make personal injury cover a compulsory element and a statutory part of all motor insurance policies, in the way that third party liability is now. That would also provide for rapid interim settlements which would sustain people through difficult periods following accidents, such as that endured by the family that I have described. It would also place the emphasis on the principle of causality rather than liability in terms of settlements between insurance companies. When the issue of automatism arose—for example, if a driver suffered a heart attack and was not in control of his vehicle for that reason—an insurance company could not deny liability because causality would be the determining factor.

I make no apologies to the House for not drafting the Bill in its final form. Hon. Members will be aware that I do not have to do that until the Bill is presented for Second Reading. I am anxious that the measure should receive as much consensus support as possible. Therefore, I shall be grateful for any advice and consultation that hon. Members may offer during the next three or four weeks while I am drafting the Bill. I am working from a set of principles, which I shall be glad to discuss with any hon. Member who has experience in this area or advice to offer. I want the measure to succeed.

My Bill has the one simple aim of ensuring that every person who is injured as a result of a road traffic accident is compensated for the injuries received, irrespective of his or her role in causing the accident. The only exceptions that might be considered are persons driving without insurance or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Mr. Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. David Lepper, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews and Dr. Michael Clark.