Legal profession accused: Consumers exposed to exploitation

Alan Shatter proposed legislation that advocated we modernise how our legal professions work and interact with peers

The legal professions will no doubt forcefully reject the almost unprecedented challenge made by Isme, the small and medium business representative organisation, to the Oireachtas finance committee yesterday.

Isme did not put a tooth in its allegations when it said lawyers are blocking reform of the insurance industry and the way the courts deal with compensation claims.

The lobby told the committee that in every instance where the interests of citizens and small businesses collide with the legal profession, lawyers intervene to ensure their interests are protected. It also expressed dissatisfaction that perjury charges rarely follow even the wildest claims. Isme accused the legal system of being “unjustly pro-plaintiff”, and in need of reform.

It said legal costs represented a “significant component” of insurance. The submission stated that the “extravagant size” of awards in minor cases — as well as the “non-existent investigation of fraudulent claims” — created a “massive incentive for fraud”.

No matter how forcefully these allegations are rejected, they will find a sympathetic ear among a public that has, because of one insurance case more bizarre than the last, come to regard many of them as spin-the-wheel opportunism rather than part of a process where someone entitled to seek redress can expect a fair hearing and a fair result.

Lawyers are often all too willing to play a central part in what can seem little more than a drama contrived to see if an insurance company might blink and write a cheque before a case is tested rigorously. The number of claims withdrawn after just opening salvoes are fired seems to confirm this.

The Alliance for Insurance Reform, which represents 26 organisations and has more than 36,000 members, with 639,000 employees, also addressed the committee.

It said small firms are closing on a weekly basis, “and members right across the spectrum are reporting savage increases in liability insurance renewals. Businesses across the leisure, childcare, and hospitality areas are threatened by insurance costs.”

These claims are not by any means novel. They have been in the public sphere for decades. Indeed, they may be part of the reason the troika — remember them? — advocated that we modernise how our legal professions work and interact with peers.

Alan Shatter, the former justice minister, proposed legislation to do this but his successor, Frances Fitzgerald, diluted it after persistent and well-documented lobbying. It is hard to think this emasculation served the common good.

Insurance cover is one of the few services we are legally obliged to buy so we and those who interact with us are protected from the unexpected. This compunction brings with it a responsibility for Government. 

It seems reasonable to argue that if a service is mandatory, it should also be mandatory that it is supervised and streamlined so exploitation is minimised.

We have, so far, not reached that point and it is difficult to see how we might unless Government adopts a far more assertive position so the rights of business, consumers, and all those obliged to pay for insurance are given priority.

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