Plans to raise the threshold for personal injury claims in the small claims court could mean thousands of people are denied compensation.
Currently, the small claims limit relating to injury claims is £1,000. Crucially, legal costs are not recoverable below that level.
The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, as part of a review of the Compensation Bill, has recommended the limit be increased to £2,500.
But personal injury experts at Birmingham law firm Coley & Tilley believe this would leave many thousands of injured accident victims with no opportunity to have legal representation in the event of pursuing a claim and could drive down the value of awards.
The Small Claims Procedure was established to make it easy for people to recover compensation without using expensive legal advisers.
The claim is heard by a judge in chambers, with the parties representing themselves. The judge makes an immediate decision and the parties get a full and final result on the day.
To date, the type of injuries claimed for using this procedure include minor accidents at work, tripping and slipping in the street, injuries by animals (eg: being bitten by a dog), accidents at home and negligence by a doctor or dentist.
The £1,000 threshold meant the injuries that could be considered were fairly minor, but by raising it to £2,500 this will cover the vast majority of personal injury claims.
A poll conducted by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) found that if the limit were to increase, around 70 per cent of injury claims would be forced into the small claims court.
According to Neil McGowan-Docherty, a partner and head of the personal injury team at Coley & Tilley, most whiplash injuries, for exam-ple, are valued at £1,500 -£2,000.
He said: "The small claims court is not the right arena to be dealing with injury claims. Such claims invariably require complex medical evidence which demands legal advice and guidance. But the costs regime in the small claims track does not provide for this facility.
"It is unacceptable to expect an injured person to run a case. They will not know how to obtain medical reports, let alone build a case to prove the defendantís negligence.
"Many will not be able to afford the cost of obtaining a medical report which typically can cost anything from £200-£500.
"Assessing the level of compensation will be difficult, particularly if the injury has not healed and may have long term consequences.
"What's more, the prospect of presenting their case is pretty daunting for a lay person. "Most personal injury claims are made against businesses or insured defendants who are, more often than not, legally represented, even in the small claims court. This tilts the playing field against the claimant."
Allan Gore QC, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, has described the move as "nothing short of a
disaster for access to justice".
The organization commissioned a MORI poll which found the majority of the 2,000 people interviewed said they would not seek justice through the courts if the limit were raised; 64 per cent said they would be unlikely to pursue their case without an independent solicitor, and 80 per cent believed that without an independent solicitor they would not receive the right amount of compensation from an insurer.
Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry, which picks up the tab for most personal injury claims, has been lobby-ing for an increase in the threshold.
Mr Docherty said: "The insurance industry stands to save millions if this goes ahead. The number of claims will plummet and they will have the opportunity to face unrepresented claimants.
"Evidence suggests that where settlement offers are made to unrepresented claimants, they are generally 50 per cent less.
"The legal profession must lobby hard to ensure that the small claims threshold is not weighted in favour of defendants and their insurers, and that access to justice for accident victims is maintained."