IN A SECRET briefing that took place at a meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys General (SCAG) on the Gold Coast this week, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) was asked to explain why the promised benefits of the changes to personal injury compensation did not appear to have materialised.
The ICA attempted to allay fears that tort reform had been futile and that there had been little or no reduction in premiums, saying instead that reforms had had a positive impact, with premiums coming down and cover now being more widely available.
It referred to the latest Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) price monitoring report, which found that in the six months before June 2004, the average size of claims was reduced by 11 per cent. As well, average premiums had dropped 15 per cent, it said. It told the audience of state and territory attorneys that the ACCC expected further premium reductions in 2005.
The meeting itself has angered legal professional bodies, including the Law Council of Australia (LCA) and the Law Society of NSW. They said the secrecy of the meeting was inappropriate and demanded details of the meeting, arguing the public deserved an explanation.
LCA president John North said instead of trying to “spin their story behind closed doors”, the insurers should provide a public explanation to a community that is still paying high premiums.
North also expressed concern with the ICA’s take on the matter. The Law Council believes, North said, that at the time tort law reforms were enacted, premiums were already bloated, “and so for insurers to say there’s been a real decrease is outrageous”.
He said he hoped SCAG asked the insurers “the difficult and relevant questions regarding their huge increase in profits with the huge decrease in payments to injured people”.
“The Law Council believes the situation is so bad that people will eventually realise that they’re paying large premiums for negligible cover. Insurers could price themselves out of the business,” North said. He said insurers had created a “climate of fear out of which has come tort law reform and the loss of major compensation rights for injured people”.
NSW Law Society president John McIntyre said the meeting of insurers and SCAG, which coincided with a NSW parliamentary inquiry, was ill timed. He argued it could be seen as an attempt by the insurers to avoid public disclosure of how far their profits had been inflated by the changes to personal injury compensation legislation.
“We know that insurance industry profits have skyrocketed and yet there has been little or no reduction in premiums. Insurance company profits are coming out of the pockets of injured people and their families,” McIntyre said.
But ICA executive director Alan Mason announced after the meeting that the ACCC report confirms the undertakings that insurers gave to federal and state governments that they would monitor the costs of claims and that they would respond when the negative trends of recent years improved.
“Since the late 90s, the number and cost of liability claims increased significantly, and insurers were reporting hundreds of millions of dollars a year in underwriting losses,” Mason said last week.
Insurers have opened their books to the ACCC, he said, and “no evidence of improper pricing has been found”. He said that data from various industry surveys had revealed that the market had in fact improved, that there are more companies in the market and that availability of cover is no longer an issue.
In the meeting, the ICA provided the attorneys with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) statistics showing that liability only accounted for less than 8 per cent of Australian insurers’ total revenue. This, it argued, should refute claims that recent company profits were made on the back of tort reform.
Mason told the attorneys that vigilance would be needed to ensure legislative intent would not be eroded, and that the objectives of reform would eventually be achieved.
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