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Overhaul accident compensation system, says Sir Geoffrey Palmer

11 September 2018

New Zealand should have a single unified accident compensation system not only for people incapactitated by accidents but also those incapacitated by sickness or otherwise disabled, Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC says.

Delivering the 2018 Sir Owen Woodhouse Memorial Lecture at Victoria University of Wellington on 10 September, Sir Geoffrey said the “unfinished business” of what Sir Owen intended when the Royal Commission he chaired laid the groundwork for the no-faults system needs finally to be completed.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Palmer
Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC. 

He said only about half of the Royal Commission report's “bold, almost revolutionary recommendations” went on to be included in the 1972 Act that established the first version of the accident compensation system we have today.

“The scheme has certainly improved the plight of accident victims compared with what was available at common law. Many more people can claim and have their hardship relieved. Yet there have been persistent criticisms of ACC in recent years about how the lines are drawn, how medical issues are assessed and many changes in administration.

“In the past few years, the decisions of ACC have become more restrictive, similar to liability insurance not social insurance, and less people oriented. At its inception, the scheme created two classes: those who are injured who are treated more generously than those who are sick or otherwise disabled. The Woodhouse Report made clear the recommended scheme was to be a temporary order of things. Until the discrimination the present scheme creates is removed, social justice will not have been achieved.”

Sir Geoffrey said serious inequalities stem from the preferential treatment enjoyed by accident victims in terms of both income support and rehabilitation.

Someone “laid low by cancer, a heart attack or stroke” is treated much less generously than someone suffering an accidental injury that results in the same incapacity, he said.

“The first group is easily impoverished by the drop in income compared with the person on ACC.”

“This was a scheme to do away with the need for lawyers when claiming compensation for personal injury. Now the legislation is so intricate that lawyers are often needed,” Sir Geoffrey said.

He  said that, 50 years after the Woodhouse Report, “We do not seem to be willing to grasp the nettle and design what a rational and humane system of income support looks like. Fairness demands a policy response and one that is properly worked through. That is what the Woodhouse legacy is saying to us, if only we would listen.

“The Woodhouse vision was admirable, the performance of the scheme that was adopted improved matters substantially for accident victims, but there is unfinished business. The future remains uncertain. We need now a fresh infusion of Woodhouse boldness and vision.”

Sir Owen Woodhouse died in 2014, aged 97.

The annual lecture in his name commemorates the life of one of New Zealand’s most distinguished judges and citizens, whose roles included President of the Court of Appeal and President of the Law Commission.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019