When I received a letter from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last week saying the road traffic process reforms would be delayed, I was not surprised.
To receive it 24 hours before a preplanned mediation on the issue, though, was surprising, and hardly motivating. However, to then receive an email mid-mediation with members of the MoJ from its press officer saying that the previous letter was sent in error was intriguing.
I took the liberty of showing the MoJ members the email. They said they had never heard of the press officer and denied that the email was correct. As an inquisitive (some might say nosy) lawyer, I responded to the email, questioning its accuracy. I received a classically political response to the effect that when the email was sent it was correct. I was none the wiser.
Having been told by a district judge the day before that the reforms were on ice, I was particularly suspicious. It was like being in an episode of Yes, Minister.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but the following timeline could be seen as curious at least – or convenient at worst: the process review is delayed; the Jackson review is due to conclude in January 2010, too late to enact any change for April 2010; there must be a general election no later than May 2010, likely to result in a change of government; we have a change of Master of the Rolls in October 2009. What are the odds that the April deadline slips? This matter would then fall into the hands of a new administration, for which it will hardly be a priority.
Many people have put a lot of hard work into this reforms process. I am sure that if a workable solution at an appropriate price can be achieved it would benefit all concerned, particularly consumers as insurance policyholders, who could benefit from lower premiums, and also those using the personal injury system.
The mediation I was involved in was successful in part, but much remains to be done if rules are to be ready for April 2010. The thorny issue of fixed costs has yet to be discussed. To make progress there will have to be significant give and take on all sides, otherwise a figure is likely to be imposed that will be more unpalatable to all concerned.
This must not become a political football. I have expressed concern previously about the number of reviews being undertaken around the issue of legal costs and the degree of overlap between them. I am wondering whether these goings on are the manifestation of political to-ings and fro-ings as people jostle for position. My prime suspects are the Master of the Rolls, who instigated the Jackson review, and Jack Straw, whose MoJ team is ultimately responsible for delivering the process review.
Reform of the road traffic process is potentially the most significant reform since 1999, when Lord Woolf delivered his review of access to justice. If this falters because of political pressure it will be an enormously backward step and a major blow to the consumer.
Currently we have a system that is innately inefficient. Indeed, it rewards inefficiency. We have the opportunity to create modern, commoditised law in a simple format that the consumer will understand.
After being involved in mediating this issue I am not sure that some of the claimant lobby has bought into this approach. I have some sympathy with organisations such as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil), the membership of which is incredibly diverse. But until there is significant consolidation in the claimant personal injury market we inevitably continue to encounter conflict within organisations such as Apil compared with those such as the Motor Accident Solicitors Society.