Very few accident claims result in a trial, or final hearing. Settlement of most accident claims is negotiated before court proceedings are issued, and even when court proceedings have to be issued, most accident claims are settled by agreement before a final hearing. If a claim has to proceed to a final hearing, there are several different types of hearing which a client may have to attend.
Probably the most straightforward involves the court approval of a childís compensation.
Claimants under the age of 18 cannot pursue claims through the Courts on their own, and need a parent or guardian to do so for them. This parent or guardian is called the "Litigation Friend". A litigated childís claim must also be concluded by an approval hearing. Such hearings are often short, sometimes only 15 minutes, and at these hearings the judge will read the medical report, read the Claimantís statement, probably ask the Claimant a few questions to ensure that the child is recovered, and then either approve the sum of compensation agreed or make recommendations. Usually only the judge, the childís barrister and parent are present, although in rare circumstances a barrister for the insurance company may attend also but will usually not participate.
The second type of final hearing is where liability is admitted and in fact everything is agreed except for the amount of compensation the Claimant should receive. This hearing is referred to either as a "disposal" or "assessment of damages" hearing. Traditionally, disposal hearings were intended to be "paper" hearings at which the judge would simply read the papers and make a judgment, and indeed they have been conducted this way in the past, but over the years the lines have become blurred and they have been treated as assessment of damages hearings, which are more common. This is when liability is admitted but the amount of any compensation is to be determined. At such a hearing the judge, the Claimantís barrister and the Defendantís barrister will all appear. The person who caused the accident will not usually appear at this hearing as the only issue is the amount of compensation, not whether the Claimant should receive compensation. At such a hearing the Claimantís barrister will introduce the case, following which the Claimant will undergo a short cross examination by the Defendantís barrister on the content of the Claimantís witness statement. The Claimantís barrister may then ask the Claimant a few questions and both barristers will then make "submissions" to the judge, trying to persuade the judge as to their interpretation of the value of the claim. The judge will then give his judgment, giving the reasons why he considers the claim is worth a certain amount.
The same format is usually followed whether the case is substantial or small, but in substantial cases there may be other witnesses, doctors, or other experts (such as engineers) who may be giving evidence before the case concludes.
The last type of final hearing is a full trial where liability is denied by the Defendant. This follows the same procedure as above, although witnesses will usually appear on both sides and cross examination will take place of any Defendant witnesses by the Claimantís barrister in much the same way as the Defendantís barrister cross examines the Claimant. The judge will weigh up all of the evidence and will give his judgment not only on the amount of the claim, but also on whether the Defendant should pay anything. Once again the same general procedure is followed for large or small cases, but with larger cases, the length of the trial and number of witnesses may be more extensive.
At the time of writing of this article, the Ministry of Justice have announced plans to introduce a new system of hearings governing road traffic cases in which liability is admitted and the intention is to streamline the process. Much greater use of "paper hearings" will be made and it is hoped that Claimants will receive a fair sum of damages more swiftly.