Lord Hunt says the government’s grand plans of a year ago seem to have evaporated

"Justice delayed, is justice denied,” observed the great Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone; and in 2008 the Ministry of Justice is in danger of becoming the Ministry of Delay. Everyone seems to agree that the claims process is too slow, too expensive and too heavily laced with lawyers – but still no one ever quite gets round to doing anything about it.

Almost a year ago, on 20 April 2007, the then Department for Constitutional Affairs produced a very encouraging consultation paper on the subject. Its proposals would have significantly reduced the role of lawyers in the process – and all the attendant costs – and they would have also accelerated the delivery of compensation to those who suffered injuries.

The written ministerial statement made to Parliament that day, announced that the paper would set out and consider “ways to improve the claims process for personal injury cases to make it more timely, proportionate and cost-effective”.

It continued: “It makes proposals for a new system based around the principles of early notification of a claim; early admissions of liability; the removal of duplication of work; fixed time periods and fixed recoverable costs.” It is important to re-emphasise that the paper contained clear proposals for reform.

Now, one might expect such proposals to be universally welcomed, but it seems they have not been. The government’s own code of practice on consultation states that a summary of responses to a consultation, plus a “summary of the next steps for the policy”, should be published within 12 weeks, “as far as possible”.

“It would be nothing short of a scandal if considerations that run counter to the best interests of claimants effectively veto these much-needed and oft-delayed reforms

Lord Hunt

Yet this consultation closed in July last year and we are still waiting. Bridget Prentice, the minister, now says a response will be forthcoming by the end of March. Apparently the delay has been caused by the “numerous and diverse range” of the responses received. That’s all very well, but I cannot imagine there were many surprises among the responses.

Inevitably, there is a great deal of speculation about how ministers came to lose the momentum they so manifestly had less than a year ago, and also what they may now do. Although this was a consultation paper rather than a Green Paper or White Paper, it was made clear from the outset that ministers believed these relatively modest reforms were both necessary and desirable. They have invested a lot of political capital and it is generally accepted the only losers from these proposals would be lawyers and those who feed them a steady supply of lucrative cases.

During the passage of the Compensation Bill, MPs from both sides of the House drew attention to the flourishing trade in personal injury cases and the referral fees and success fees associated with them. No one sheds tears for lawyers (though as a lawyer myself I do not totally harden my heart) but it would be nothing short of a scandal if considerations that run counter to the best interests of claimants effectively veto these much-needed and oft-delayed reforms.

So no one should underestimate the significance of the announcement that will issue forth from the Ministry of Justice some time next month. I hope we can all look forward to a happy Easter. IT