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Court rules personal injuries guidelines legally binding

The Supreme Court has ruled that personal injuries awards guidelines voted into force by Ireland’s judges three years ago are legally binding and remain in force.

In what was a complex but historic decision in relation to personal injuries awards, a seven-judge court has dismissed the bulk of issues raised in an appeal brought by Bridget Delaney from Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

The court also held that while the guidelines continue to have effect, any further changes would require legislative intervention by the Oireachtas.

Ms Delaney had challenged the High Court’s rejection in 2022 of her judicial review action against the 2021 guidelines, which have seen awards for pain and suffering reduced by up to 40%.

She claimed that the guidelines were unconstitutional and amounted to an encroachment on judicial independence.

A majority of the court, comprised of Mr Justice Peter Charleton, Mr Justice Brian Murray, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, Mr Justice Maurice Collins, Ms Justice Marie Whelan, Ms Justice Mary Faherty and Mr Justice Gerard Haughton, held that a section of the 2019 Judicial Council Act was unconstitutional.

Judges Hogan, Whelan, Haughton and Faherty held that the section in question, which relates to the judges’ powers to make guidelines, is contrary to the independence of the judiciary.

However judges Charleton, Hogan, Murray, Collins, Faherty and Whelan agreed that the guidelines were subsequently independently ratified by the Oireachtas and given legal effect following the enactment of the 2021 Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Act.

That ratification, the majority of the court found, meant the guidelines passed in March 2021 are “in force as a matter of law, and have thereby been given legal effect”.

Mr Justice Haughton dissented from that particular finding.

As a result of the court’s findings Mr Justice Charleton said that Ms Delaney was entitled to a declaration that section of the 2019 Act was unconstitutional in its current form.

However the court was also making a declaration that the guidelines had been given force of law by the passing of subsequent legislation.

The court was also making a further declaration that the Personal Injuries Assessment Board – the government body that makes personal injuries awards – had acted properly and in accordance with law in applying the guidelines to Ms Delaney’s application to be assessed to her pain and suffering.

The court ordered that except for the declaration of unconstitutionality, the appeal from the High Court decision was to be dismissed.

Ms Delaney’s legal costs are to be paid by Ireland and the Attorney General, the court also ruled.

PIAB is to pay its own legal costs, Mr Justice Charleton added.

Ms Delaney’s case focused on a vote taken in March 2021 by the Judicial Council, the body made up of all the State’s judges, to adopt the new guidelines.

She claimed the guidelines were unfair to persons who have suffered personal injuries.

She claimed she fractured a bone in her right ankle, after she tripped and fell at a public footpath in Dungarvan on 12 April 2019.

She required medical treatment, physiotherapy and was given a walker boot for several weeks and alleged she sustained her injuries due to the negligence of Waterford City and Council.

In June 2019 she submitted a claim to PIAB, seeking damages.

She was awarded €3,000 by PIAB, when she claimed she was advised that under the previous regime her injuries could expect to attract general damages of between €18,000 and €34,000.

However, she claimed PIAB delayed in assessing her injuries until the new guidelines were introduced, acted in breach of fair procedures, and that her assessment should not have been conducted under the new guidelines.

She also claimed the guidelines and their adoption by the judicial council also failed to have adequate regard to awards made by the Irish courts in personal injuries actions.

Ms Delaney sought orders quashing the assessment PIAB made in respect of her claim, and the Judicial Council’s decision to adopt the new personal injuries guidelines.

She also sought declarations including that PIAB breached her rights to natural and constitutional justice, and that the Judicial Council acted outside of its powers in adopting the guidelines.

The action was against the State and the PIAB, and was aimed at setting aside guidelines regarding awards for personal injuries claims introduced.

Opposing the appeal, the respondents rejected her claims concerning the guidelines, which were drawn up by a committee of the Judicial Council, before being approved following a ballot of all the State’s judges.

In his judgement in 2022 Mr Justice Charles Meenan dismissed Ms Delaney’s claims, including that her rights had been breached, and he also found that PIAB had acted in accordance with the relevant provisions of the 2003 PIAB Act when it assessed her personal injuries claim.

He said that Ms Delaney’s constitutional rights of property and bodily integrity and equality “did not encompass a right to a particular sum of damages, but rather a right to have her damages assessed in accordance with well-established legal principals”.

He said that the independence of the judiciary, along with the expertise and experience in the awarding of damages meant the judicial council was an appropriate body to draft and adopt the guidelines.

She appealed that decision directly to the Supreme Court.

Among the issues considered in the appeal were the interpretation and construction of delegated legislation regarding the implications of the constitutional mandate of judicial independence and the separation of powers between judges and the Oireachtas.

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