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Committee (7th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 1st February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 5:45 pm, 1st February 2012

My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment 164ZA in my name and give my support to Amendment 164, which has just been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

The Bill contains a series of proposals that attempt to dent access to justice for people who have suffered harm. It reduces their damages quite dramatically by taking away the recoverability of success fees and "after the event" insurance premiums. The referral fee ban may go some way to curbing the abuses of some claims management companies, but it will also sweep up many organisations, including important victims' charities and membership organisations, that do a lot of good hard work in ensuring access to justice, and it will do nothing to curb some of the abuses that have inhibited access to justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred to third-party capture. What is it and why is it so controversial? Perhaps I may quote from the Financial Services Authority's guidelines on third-party capture:

"Third-party capture (or third-party assistance) is when an insurer deals directly with a person who has a potential claim against their policyholder, in order to investigate and settle the claim. Typically, an insurer offers a compensation payment to settle the claim directly to a third party, rather than settling through a legal representative for that party. This is mainly used for third-party motor claims. But sometimes it's used in other types of insurance, such as employers' liability.

Concerns have been raised by industry bodies and consumer groups that this practice could mean third parties do not receive fair and reasonable treatment and compensation.

The handling of all insurance claims by insurers-including third-party claims-is regulated under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. This means that an insurer's conduct towards third parties must comply with our Principles for Businesses and, where relevant, the claims handling rules in chapter eight of our new Insurance Conduct of Business Sourcebook ... Complying with our Principles for Businesses includes acting with integrity, due skill, care and diligence and observing proper standards of market conduct".

The trouble is that that is not how it works in practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has clearly shown.

The system is used by insurers, in their drive to maintain and increase profits, to collect premiums but reduce the amounts they pay out. In short, the insurers want to be their own judge and jury. The system should protect legitimate claimants who may have suffered great harm and be in great mental anguish and who are therefore susceptible to an approach that undermines their rights but ends the process quickly. They should receive what the law says they are entitled to, not what the insurance company says it is prepared to pay, and there is a big difference between the two. In the old days, it was not unusual for the same solicitor to represent both purchaser and vendor in a conveyancing transaction. Of course, there were clear conflicts of interest and major problems as a result. Thankfully, that practice no longer occurs.

Third-party capture has the same risks to consumers attached to it. The insurer, who has a responsibility for paying out on a claim, also decides how much to pay, more often than not on the basis of no, or inadequate, medical evidence and without the claimant having the benefit of legal advice. There could not be a clearer conflict of interest between a big insurance company playing the numbers and an unrepresented, unadvised claimant, but the great irony is that insurers end up actively encouraging claims with the direct approach of offering to settle quickly without the purported inconvenience of a medical examination.

A further irony is that the idea of putting forward a whiplash claim can be put in the mind of a claimant when they had not originally thought of claiming. Of course, the newspapers are full of such behaviour. The insurers are, in some respects, playing the numbers. They think that if they can buy off 10 whiplash cases for, say, £1,000 or so-even if some of them are, dare I say, fraudulent-it will cost them less than paying out the correct compensation to properly advised claimants on, say, four or five of them. That benefits insurers significantly. It can be no surprise that that has led to an increase in low-value whiplash claims and the undersettlement of more serious claims.

The insurance industry and the personal injury industry have been playing games for too long at each other's expense. The result has been that genuine victims of harm lose out-and lose out significantly. Third-party capture is a damaging practice and I urge the Minister to accept either this amendment or the other one.