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Road Traffic Accidents Compensation For Victims

Volume 98: debated on Wednesday 4 June 1986

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4.28 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide compensation for victims of road traffic accidents without proof of fault and for related purposes.

The casualty toll on our roads is horrific, and from figures supplied to me last week in a written answer it appears that in the last four years for which records were available 1,251,000 of our citizens were injured in road accidents. Of those, 682,000 were men, 380,000 were women and 189,000 were children. We know from the researches carried out by the Royal Commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury, chaired by Lord Pearson, and known as the Pearson commission, that only a fraction of those who are injured on our roads receive any compensation through the ordinary provisions of the law on tort, a law which requires those who seek damages to prove negligence against the defendant. The report said:
"only about a quarter of those who are injured by motor vehicles actually succeed in recovering tort compensation".

The manner in which it is decided whether someone who is injured on the road is to get compensation is archaic, ridiculous and does not work. It is a form of legal lottery, or, as the Pearson commission said:
"the fault principle operates with particular capriciousness. The `forensic lottery' had become 'a lunatic lottery and an absurd system for providing compensation for anyone."'
The system denies compensation to most people and ensures that in most cases those who obtain compensation are kept waiting for a long time for the money that they so desperately need.

It is the purpose of this Bill to introduce into our law the concept of no-fault liability in respect of road traffic accidents. It would ensure that when a case comes to court years after an accident people are not called upon to give evidence about what happened in a split second. which, even immediately afterwards, they cannot remember with any certainty, that they are not cross-examined in court about matters which occurred when they were suffering from shock, and even if they are trying to tell the truth—most are—will fail to do so, that matters which rely on personal recollection and not upon documentation but upon which people's entire financial futures depend, will not be matters for courts, and that people who are entitled to be compensated will obtain that compensation without having to prove negligence.

The concept is not new in our law. Under the Employers Liability (Defective Equipment) Act 1969, when an employee is injured or killed at work because of defective equipment, and in a subsequent action the employer is deemed to have been negligent, liability is imposed without fault. The House has accepted and approved a directive of the European Economic Community regarding product liability, and the Government are therefore committed to introducing legislation that will bring no-fault liability into our law in respect of defective products. If a product is manufactured in or imported into Britain after the summer of 1988 and it is defective and the defect causes death or personal injury, the sufferer will not have to prove negligence against the defendant — it will be presumed. The Bill would introduce precisely the same concept into the much larger, broader, more anguished and common area of road traffic accidents, in respect of which 250,000 families are affected each year by the nonsense and lack of sense and compassion of the law as it stands.

Strangely enough, matters are getting steadily worse. In Leicestershire, for example, the number of people killed on the county's roads during the first three months of this year was almost double that for the same period in 1985. Seat belts have done some good, but they have not removed the miseries of the road casualty. The Bill would provide for no-fault liability.

The question that would then arise is, who would pay for the reform? Part of the problem is that a private Member's Bill cannot involve public expenditure, because that is contrary to the rules. Part of the answer lies in the removal from lawyers and courts of cases which could properly be dealt with through a different and much less expensive system. Money would therefore be saved. Part of the answer may lie in the system which exists in New Zealand and which, I am told, is to be introduced in Australia. The state operates a scheme with or without insurance companies. The answer may lie in the insurers bearing the cost, as part of the cost would be saved by their not being forced into litigation, courts and unworthy and unnecessary costs. Part of the cost might be added to insurance premiums. I reckon that most motorists would be pleased to pay that price if it meant that, in the event of an accident, they would stand a chance of getting compensation such as is denied to them at present.

I wish to pay tribute to the memory of Lord Pearson, a man for whom I had enormous affection and respect. I wish that his report in this respect had not been hidden away since 1979–80. At least this Bill will bring to the attention of the House, the Government and the public the fact that the forensic lottery must end. That was the Pearson commission's description of this unduly slow and expensive to administer system. One day, some 45 per cent. of the cost of tort compensation will cease to be swallowed in administration costs and people will get the compensation to which they are entitled.

If the House accepts the Bill, it will add to people's prospects of getting justice. As the Pearson commission said in respect of product liability, there is no justice in our courts for most of our citizens. Those who are poor enough to get legal aid can bring a case to court, those who are rich enough not to need it may sue or defend, but for those who, like most of us, come somewhere in between, there is no hope of fighting a case. That is why some three quarters of accident victims who deserve compensation get none.

In those circumstances, I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill as the start of a campaign which I trust will end as did the product liability campaign—with a change in the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Stuart Bell, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Tony Blair, Mr. Gordon Brown, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Ron Leighton and Mr. Geoffrey Robinson.

Road Traffic Accidents Compensation For Victims

Mr. Greville Janner accordingly presented a Bill to provide compensation for victims of road traffic accidents without proof of fault and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 4 July and to be printed. [Bill 169.]