Lobby group and lawyers want big changes and reject Government proposal for tribunal to replace district court.

Lawyers and a support group are calling for big changes to the accident compensation scheme, saying it stops many people from seeking justice.

The group - Acclaim Otago - today releases a report rejecting the Government's plan to downgrade the main appeal route against the Accident Compensation Corporation decision to a tribunal.

At the moment the process goes through the district court.

The group started research for the report after lawyers Peter Sara and Warren Forster - who specialise in ACC law - found out last June there were moves to introduce a new ACC tribunal.

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In today's report, they say the present system is unfair and any reform to the process should be considered in light of four barriers: People's access to law, barriers related to evidence, claimants not feeling they are being heard and barriers to legal representation.

The researchers, led by Mr Forster, argue that ACC - as initial decision-maker and serial litigant - has become a legal expert.

"This systematically disadvantages individual claimants, who are unfamiliar with what they need to do to succeed in court," said Mr Forster.

The report says the costs of litigation and obtaining a medical opinion are a barrier for many. Legal aid was inadequate and costs awarded in the ACC review process were often delayed and covered at best 30 per cent of actual costs.

Mr Forster said ACC had money to spend on high-quality legal and medical expertise and changes were needed to give more resources to claimants. The research report says Acclaim's survey of more than 600 claimants found 85 per cent believed the ACC dispute resolution process did not provide access to justice.

Of those who received an adverse ACC decision, at least half reported reduced independence, or worse physical or mental health.

Nearly a third reported a relationship breakdown or loss of their job.

The Government, which was given an advance copy of the report, on Tuesday pre-empted its release by announcing a hold on the new tribunal until it consults affected groups, looks at other options and assesses ACC's "early resolution" efforts to reduce the number of appeals.

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The Cabinet will make a decision in December.

ACC Minister Nikki Kaye also promised a review of the rates paid to doctors and lawyers for their work in ACC decision reviews, an important issue in the research report.

Yesterday she told the Herald she had read the report and would be taking into account concerns raised.

Justice Ministry documents released to the Acclaim Otago support and lobby group show Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue indicated to officials that a tribunal was unsuitable for the complexity of ACC disputes.

How it works

Make an injury claim to the ACC at a medical or physiotherapy clinic.

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If ACC refuses to cover the claim, you can seek a review.

If dissatisfied with the reviewer's decision, you can appeal to the district court.

An appeal to higher courts can be made on a point of law.

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District court appeals
About a third of claimants' appeals were allowed, of more than 200 cases studied.
Fewer than 40% of claimants had a lawyer.

Success rates
50% - lawyers
30% - self-represented claimants
20% - advocates

Lawyer crucial to winning 3-year fight

Karen McGrath fought for three years before winning her claim against the ACC at the Supreme Court.

The 62-year-old, of Otago, broke her ankle while watching a rugby game in 2002.

"The bones were shattered. I was on crutches for six months. The pain, oh, was terrible."

Karen McGrath
Karen McGrath

The injury led to chronic pain which meant she could only be up and about for a few hours a day, forcing her to cut back her working hours to half-time.

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"Then all of a sudden I get a letter saying I have to go back to work. I rung them up - I was crying - and I said: 'I can't!' They said: 'Tough cheese.'"

ACC wanted her to undergo a vocational independence test, despite documents from her doctor showing the severe pain meant she could only work about 15 hours a week.

Mrs McGrath contacted ACC lawyer Peter Sara, who took on her case for $25 a week - the only amount she could afford to pay.

She faced three years of unsuccessful appeals to the High Court and Court of Appeal, before taking it to the Supreme Court, where the decision ruled in her favour.

Having a lawyer had been her lifesaver, she said, and she would not have continued on had it not been for legal advice.

"When the article came out in the newspaper that I'd won this case, I got letters and phone calls from people all over New Zealand wondering what they could do. My only advice to them was to get a lawyer."

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- additional reporting: Vaimoana Tapaleao