The government is trying to make it harder for workers to claim compensation if they are made ill or injured because of the negligence of their employer.
This is just the latest in a whole line of attacks on the right of working people to get justice that we have seen in recent years, including introducing fees to take cases to an employment tribunal and slashing the money that workers receive if they are the victim of a crime.
The Government is now trying to raise the small claims limit for Road Traffic Claims to £5,000 and for other Personal Injury claims (including for workplace injuries) to £2,000 from the current £1,000.
The small claims limit is the level at which you can reclaim legal costs if your claim is successful, so if you are asking for compensation below that level you have to pay your own costs. Most claims by workers for workplace injury are taken through unions at no cost to the member regardless of whether they win or loose so that the worker gets 100% of their compensation. This is because the employer’s insurer pays the costs if the claim is successful – which it is in most cases.
The current small claims limit of £1,000 helps redress the balance between claimants and defendants (almost always insurers). The insurance companies have massive legal resources behind them and, to ensure a more level playing field, the claimants also need access to legal advice. Any increase in the limit will mean that more people will be unable to receive legal advice in pursuing a claim.
The increase to £2,000 would affect an estimated 20% of the 70,000 claims that are taken every year. However, many workers also drive as part of their work and if they are injured the limit to reclaim their costs will be increased even more - to £5,000. Because unions also often support members and friends take claims in relation to non-work claims, in particular road traffic accidents, the change could affect at least 40% of all claims.
If this goes through then more workers will face the choice of dropping their claim, facing legal costs far more than they could hope to win in compensation, or representing themselves. Any person who tries to take a claim without a lawyer has far less chance of winning.
The reason behind the change to the small claims limit was originally because of allegations by the insurance company that too many “whiplash” claims were fraudulent, but the Government is now using this as an excuse to prevent tens of thousands of people from making claims, not just for Whiplash injuries. Even the insurance companies are not claiming that there is widespread fraud in workplace injury claims and around 97% are won by the injured worker.
The Government seems to think that any claim under £2,000 is insignificant, which shows the kind of world they live in. £2,000 is certainly not insignificant to someone on minimum wage who had to lose wages because they broke a limb, hurt their back or suffered lung damage.
This change will impact most on low paid part time workers in sectors like cleaning, retail, hospitality and other low paid jobs, as well as those who drive for their work such as bus drivers or paramedics.
It is also worth remembering that claims can only be successful if the worker can prove that they lost money or suffered because of their employer’s negligence. Often the claim is because the employer no longer paid them when they were off work after a workplace injury. To stop these low paid workers from being able to get back what they are legally entitled will just encourage employers not to pay workers who have to take sick leave because they have been injured at work.
It is not just the trade unions who are opposing this, even the House of Commons Justice Committee said that increasing the small claims limit for personal injury (PI) creates significant access to justice concerns.
We also have to look at the long-term implications of what this will mean, not only to those who will lose out on their legal entitlement, but on health and safety in the workplace. If an employer has several claims from workers who are injured or made ill, their insurance company is likely to demand changes. If these claims are not made the insurer will never know there is a problem and a major injury or fatality is going to be far more likely. That is why the proposal will also make our workplaces more dangerous.
You can find out more about the campaign against the proposals on the #FeedingFatCats webpage.