In these straightened times it seems remarkable that the Northern Ireland Assembly is considering taking the moral “high road” in relation to the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) Bill (NIA Bill 10/10, to give it its formal title).

Scotland, which has always blazed its legally independent path, has already negated the decision in the House of Lords' Johnston case by legislatively overriding it. This decision confirmed that asymptomatic pleural plaques are not a “compensatable injury”.

Northern Ireland is not known for following the “party” line, and it needs to take a considered view of the impact of this Bill becoming law, and not simply be dazzled by the prospect of an easy vote winner with elections pending in May of this year.

The following are some of the points arising:

  • The legal system in Northern Ireland is bound to follow the decision of the highest court in the land, formerly the House of Lords, now the Supreme Court. If this Bill becomes law, it usurps the long established basis of legal precedence in Northern Ireland. It allows political interference in our judicial system.
  • The Assembly will be legislating on what constitutes “personal injury”. This is dangerous, as the definition will not be based on sound medical expert knowledge. We fear there may be a tunnel vision, firmly focussed on the electoral prize, as opposed to the good of the voting public in general.
  • “Access to justice” is the buzz phrase in vogue at present. However, this access may be significantly undermined by arguably non-meritorious cases filling the legal system. These cases will, in all likelihood, be funded by the Legal Aid Commission, which is already facing further economic pressures in this present climate. There may be a need to appoint more judges and if, as is being considered, the county court jurisdiction for claims increases, our county court system may be overburdened by its workload being increased; not only through the increase in these claims, but also from work transferring from the High Court.
  • The risk that individuals with asymptomatic conditions in general may argue that their human rights have been impinged by political favouritism. The Executive may come under pressure from other groups in society representing other potential “victims”.
  • The risk that a medical finding of pleural plaques in any one individual leads that individual to become a less productive member of society, becoming instead introspective and indulging in a blame culture.

The Assembly needs to broaden its horizons and look to the long term losses rather than the easy vote winning gain.

Kennedys submitted a response to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Finance and Personnel's call for evidence - Damages (Asbestos-related conditions) Bill (NIA Bill 10/10).