Swearing to tell whole truth isn’t working

A perjury act has been proposed to prosecute those who make false claims of personal injury. Mick Clifford looks at why the system is currently too easy for chancers

We have a problem in this country with telling the truth. So says the Irish Small & Medium Enterprises Association (Isme), which yesterday proposed a perjury act to prosecute those who make false claims of personal injury.

Pat McDonagh, the founder of Supermac’s, has found himself at the sharp end of that culture. At yesterday’s event, he showed a video in which two men quite obviously staged an accident at a Supermac’s outlet in Mallow, Co Cork. They went on to make a claim that only ran into trouble when the video footage was produced.

Would they have thought twice about the ruse if the possibility of a criminal prosecution hung over them? Maybe, but perjury is not easy to prosecute.

Mr McDonagh also touched on a relatively new try-on, that of defamation. He told of a case in which a man walked into an off-licence with a bottle of wine and placed it on a rack. He left and returned a while later, lifted the bottle as if for the first time, and headed for the door. When he was stopped by security staff, he said he had bought it elsewhere and they were now accusing him of a crime. The insurance company settled the defamation claim rather than take the risk of defending it with no prospect of recouping costs in the event of a successful defence.

Isme chairman Ciaran Murtagh noted that his pre-cast concrete business has plants of a near-identical profile in Ireland and in the UK.

“The insurance for the UK plant is about half what we pay here,” he told the Irish Examiner. Some of this he ascribes to the lack of a proper statute for perjury in this State.

Isme is proposing that such an act would ensure those who make an initial claim under an affidavit of verification would be subject to the possibility of up to five years in prison if they are lying.

The proposal has some merit. Insurance costs, in both motor and public liability, are going through the roof. Frequently, we read of a court case where a spurious claim is thrown out, sometimes with an accompanying comment from a judge about a failure to tell the truth under oath. Rarely do any of these instances lead to a prosecution for perjury. The common law offence of perjury, designed to act as a deterrent to lying in court, is not working in this country.

According to Isme, some, if not much, of this is down to a “cultural tolerance among the judiciary and some members of the public for telling lies for cash”. Maybe so, but it’s also the case that some judges might baulk at the prospect of vigorously encouraging the pursuit of somebody trying it on with a claim while having to largely ignore lying among a better-dressed class of litigant.

For lying on oath is not confined to the socioeconomic bracket from which the bogus personal injury claimant is drawn.

Anybody who regularly attended tribunals in the 2000s would be well- acquainted with the sight of captains of industry and paragons of politics lying without compunction in order to avoid the consequences of telling the truth. This applied even when the consequence might have amounted to little more than a few sour headlines of small personal embarrassment.

It was quite obvious that the average tribunal witness who had awkward questions to answer always knew that there would be no comeback from spewing out a few porkies.

This was alluded to by Judge Peter Charleton at the opening of the disclosures tribunal last February.

“This tribunal is a drain on the resources of the Irish people and it is paid for by their submission to the democratic structures of which taxation has been a central part in our tradition,” he said. “Every lie told to this tribunal will be a waste of what ordinary men and women have paid for through their unremitting efforts.”

How much more effective might be the judge’s warnings if they were accompanied by a law that could be expected to have some effect on those disposed to transgressing?

Isme’s proposal, that an affidavit of verification signed at the outset of a claim be subject to a new act, has merit.

If it comes to pass, it should also include the signing of affidavits in the commercial court.

Frequently, after various submissions go back and forth in this particular branch of law reserved for the moneyed, it turns out that some earlier affidavits weren’t worth the paper written on.

As such, court time, which is paid for by the citizens, is wasted and ‘chancers’ given another chance to chance their arm.

Practically every section of society would welcome a new perjury act.

Businesses might get some leverage in their battles with insurers.

The public could be assured that money in courts and tribunal would not be wasted by having to wade through the lies.

And the judiciary might feel more confident that when they spot a porkie there is some prospect of action being taken to deter others from doing likewise.

Ironically, the only section of society that might be a little reluctant about a new act would be a cohort drawn from the legal business.

The solicitors and lawyers for whom personal injuries is money for old rope might be discommoded at the prospect of a depletion of business.

Still, telling the truth is never easy on everybody.


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