One of the shabbiest symptoms of our greed-and-grab culture is the ease with which we initiate litigation that holds out the prospect of a compensation cheque or even a percentage of that cheque.
Of course some plaintiffs, the majority really, seeking compensation have been wronged and are entirely justified in seeking redress through our courts.
Nevertheless, it is not unusual to be bewildered by some of these compo cases, especially when awards to plaintiffs more easily seen as opportunists rather than victims, seem so disproportionate or even unnecessary. That confusion is exacerbated when the presiding judge, as some have done, express doubts about the veracity of evidence offered under oath but nevertheless make substantial awards.
Earlier this week there was a very welcome victory for common sense when, in the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns dismissed an appeal against the Circuit Court’s rejection of a claim made by a girl, through her mother, because her finger got stuck in a sugar dispenser in a restaurant. The child’s mother said her finger was “pumping” blood when she was brought to hospital.
Mr Justice Kearns was not swayed and described the action as “another case of compensation culture gone mad”. He gave meaningful weight to that opinion when he awarded costs of both the High Court and Circuit Court cases against the child’s mother. He is to be congratulated.
This no-foal-no-fee game of poker played out in our courtrooms depends entirely on the support of legal and other professionals prepared to take cases that often seem unsupported by rational behaviour or honest argument. Undoubtedly the learned ladies and gentlemen of the legal professions, some of them anyway, would buck at the suggestion that some of their colleagues are happy to support actions that could be, at best, described as predatory. This would matter little enough if the awards granted were not such a terrible drain on more or less every entity in the country that interacts with the public. These cases are not settled with “free” money but rather from the coffers we all depend on to make this country function, coffers we all must renew through either taxes or insurance premiums. Even the law library might agree that there are far too many cases based on voracious opportunism rather than the need to protect individuals.
It may be too much to hope that Mr Justice Kearns’ stand might provoke a change in attitude but if the legal firms who take compensation briefs that fail and see costs awarded against their client were liable for the same percentage of those costs that they would expect in the event of a win and an award for their client then a lot of the each-way bets dressed up as imperatives of our justice system would never reach court. This would not in any way impinge on cases where there is a real need to right a wrong and it might just be the kind of legal-system reform — self-imposed filtering by legal professionals — the troika would have advocated. This measure, by itself, would change little enough but it would be a welcome and worthy part of the mosaic that will, hopefully and eventually, make up a renewed and remade Ireland.
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