Legislation allowing judges set guidelines on personal injury awards in line with other countries should be in place by the summer, the minister in charge of insurance policy says.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Michael D'Arcy, says he will push for a referendum if the judiciary does not deal with the awards issue. In a referendum, the people would decide whether the Oireachtas has the authority to cap awards, said Mr D'Arcy.
He hopes that would not happen - that the Judicial Council Bill will be passed quickly and judges can agree on guidelines to recalibrate award levels.
A key recommendation in the Personal Injury Commission's report last September is that a judicial council should be established to compile guidelines for personal injury awards.
Mr D'Arcy, who was speaking on RTÉ radio, said he “had been as pushy as hell” in trying to deal with the issue of soaring insurance premiums.
Former High Court president, Nicholas Kearns, who is chairman of the Personal Injury Commission, said the judiciary is not afraid of facing up to reality – they know that change is needed.
The commission found that personal injury payouts here are 4.4 times higher than in Britain.
Mr D'Arcy said people are getting tens of thousands of euro for what he described as “pretty inconsequential injuries".
Mr Justice Kearns said judges would find capping of awards preferable to politicians fixing tariffs.
Mr D'Arcy said his objective is to get the planned legislation through both Houses of the Oireachtas after Easter. At that point, he said, the Judicial Council could be established.
“I will be pushing as hard as I can via the Attorney General to the Chief Justice to ensure that the first piece of work done is the recalibration of the guidelines.”
His priority is to ensure that businesses which are struggling because of the cost of insurance cover stays in business. He said Ireland now has the highest level of personal injury awards in the world because no one shouted “stop”.
Mr Justice Kearns said judges are not afraid of facing up to the fact that change is required.
The Court of Appeal has made “massive strides” over the last two years in dealing with appeals from the High Court, with cuts of up to 50% in general damages made in certain cases.
However, the Court of Appeal can not “reach down” to the Circuit Court. An appeal from the Circuit Court went to the High Court and there it ended.
Mr Justice Kearns said access from the Circuit Court to the Court of Appeal would be on a point of law only.
He wants to see the Judicial Council established quickly and pointed out that there is a provision in the bill that would allow the council to provide educational courses for members of the judiciary.
“If the judiciary takes the view that they need a specific provision inserted in the Judicial Council Bill to authorise the judicial council to provide indicative guidelines well then for heaven's sake, let it be put in now and get this bill enacted into law straight away,” he said.
Mr D'Arcy said insurance amendment guidelines are being prepared for the report stage in the Senate that will take place the week after Easter.
Mr Justice Kearns said guidelines could be issued relatively quickly if the judiciary decides that they could provide them on an interim basis while the legislation is being finalised.