Despite describing the motives behind the new portal for whiplash claims as ‘sensible’, handl Group’s chief commercial officer says ‘the vehicle we’ve been given is a bit unfortunate’

The new Official Injury Claim (OIC) portal, due to be implemented on 31 May 2021, is “slightly past its sell by date” and “doesn’t really relate to the original purpose at all”, according to Chris Chatterton, chief commercial officer at handl Group.

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Chatterton explained his fears that the new portal was “not really going to do what it is designed to do”.

The OIC portal comes under part one of the Civil Liability Act 2018. Its functionality is meant to enable Litigants in Person to process their own whiplash injury claims following a road traffic accident, with awards based on a corresponding tariff table that aligns compensation with injury recovery times.

However, research published by handl Group this month revealed that between 90% and 95% of injured claimants using the new portal will still be represented by law firms or claims management companies (CMCs).

Chatterton explained: “One of the problems that we’re seeing with the portal is it’s not really going to do what it is designed to do. It was built for Litigants in Person and nearly no Litigants in Person want to use it – it’s literally going to be used by representatives and there’s all this worry about what’s going to happen as a consequence.

“Is [the portal] easy to use? Well, no it’s not. Does it allow negotiation? Well, no it doesn’t really. What do you do if you disagree? Well, you end up having to go to the small claims court. Does that work? Well, no it doesn’t really because it’s not designed for this. There’s lots of worries.

“The principals of going down this route were always sensible, it’s just the vehicle we’ve been given is a bit unfortunate.”

He added that the portal is now “slightly past its sell by date really” due to the length of time it has taken to come to fruition – especially considering the portal implementation date has been delayed three times since the original April 2020 deadline.

“Everyone forgets, because it was all set out a long time ago, what the original purpose was,” he said.

“It’s found its own path and the thing has been built – everyone’s forgotten where it started out and there’s also been so much change because of the pandemic, because of Brexit. We’ve ended up with this thing that doesn’t really relate to the original purpose at all, it’s just something we’ve got. It’s been built in little steps as well. There was never really a grand plan.

“Everyone’s got [a] focus on implementing a thing as opposed to remembering the path they were supposed to be on. It’s been built too quickly without enough functionality.”

In addition, Chatterton remains unsure as to whether the OIC portal will reduce the volume of whiplash claims – handl Group’s research indicated that claims volumes will stay the same post-implementation.

He said: “One of the interesting things that came out of the research that sometimes gets lost is that no one is assuming that claims volumes will decrease now, where - of course - one of the underpinning tenets of the government’s approach was that claims would drop by 20% - arguably they’ve already dropped by 20% due to the pandemic.”

Continued concerns

Chatterton also expressed concerns whether the portal would actually work come launch day – he explained that handl Group’s legal expenses business Coplus has not “had a single day of unfettered access to test” and that it hasn’t “been able to do an end-to-end case yet”.

“The working expectation is that it won’t work and everybody’s planning to work round the fact that it’s not working very well,” he continued.

“Obviously, the official line is it’s all going to be live and it’s raring to go – but it just doesn’t feel like that. There are worries that it will work.”

Furthermore, the portal “doesn’t exist on its own as a channel of communication”, which eliminates the possibility of negotiations and can make conversations more challenging, Chatterton continued.

“If you’re really going to deal with a claimant, you have to talk to them a bit. You can’t hide behind a platform. That bit of it has got lost, the fact that you do have to talk to people and there will have to be some negotiation,” he added.

Arbitration answer

However, one positive that has emerged from discussions around the reforms has been a focus on arbitration, noted Chatterton.

“It has forced people to look at arbitration, which they should have done a long time ago, but for whatever reason, they never have done. I think it’s application will get broadened to lots of other areas, so it’s good,” he said.

With this in mind, handl Group business Claimspace started an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) pilot scheme for minor injury claims, in conjunction with analytics organisation Verisk, back in January.

To date, the programme has processed more than 100 cases through to settlement, achieving average settlement times of 6.7 days and an average £550 reduction in claims costs for insurers.

Three law firms and two insurers have been involved with the pilot, which is ongoing, so far.

Claimspace managing director Stewart McCulloch added that users participating in the pilot had reported average Claimspace awards being in line with Ministry of Justice stage three averages awards at court.

The comparison between Claimspace awards and insurers’ final offers are also consistent with industry standards achieved at court.

McCulloch even predicts that technology-based ADR will be the norm for disputed injury claims up to a value of £25,000 within 18 months.

“Industry-driven responses to the various challenges we share will always be far more successful than any government intervention. This is a vital initiative which can become a template for tech-based ADR in the post-reform world,” he said.