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Consumer Advocate for Insurance Ronald Godin says his office has helped consumers and should be maintained in its present form. (CBC)

Automobile insurance rates decreased for a seventh consecutive year in New Brunswick, according to the 2011 Consumer Advocate for Insurance report.

The average premium was $731, down from $742 the year before, the report released Friday states.

The auto insurance market has shown continued stability since the provincial government introduced reforms in 2003, said Consumer Advocate for Insurance Ronald Godin.

Prior to that, rates averaged more than $1,100, he said.

Those reforms included implementing a $2,500-cap on payouts for minor injuries.

The province is now considering increasing that cap to between $4,000 and $6,000, based on the recommendations of a working group, submitted in November.

"We await with great anticipation the government's response to the Auto Insurance Working Group report," said Godin.

"Any decision will likely have an impact on consumers, accident victims and the industry in general, depending very much on the changes, if any, to the definition of 'minor injury' more than any changes to the amount of the cap itself."

The working group recommended the definition of minor injury be changed to: "a sprain or strain or whiplash-associated disorder, or a combination thereof, which results in minor consequences to a person’s life.

"'Minor consequences' means that neither the impairments nor the limitations resulting from the injury last more than six months and a person substantially retains his or her pre-accident bodily functions, level of activities and participation in life."

The committee also recommended annual indexing to CPI.

Maintain Consumer Advocate office

In his 28-page report, Godin also lobbies for the survival of his office.

"There is great concern as to the impact on the Office of the Consumer Advocate if the recommendations in the Richard Report are adopted as submitted," he said, referring to a report by Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard.

Last May, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly asked Richard to recommend ways to enhance the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the province's legislative officers without impairing their independence.

Richard recommended in December that the responsibilities of the Consumer Advocate for Insurance and its resources be assigned to the ombudsman, effective Jan. 1, 2015. The recommendation remains under review.

'Implementing a recommendation that would substantially alter the nature of the office would likely lead to a reoccurrence of the feeling of imbalance and inequity that existed [before].'—Ronald Godin, Consumer Advocate for Insurance

Godin contends the change would "substantially alter the nature and the quality of the services of the Office of the Consumer Advocate and it would also negatively impact on the perception of independence and authority that are held by the public and the insurance industry towards the Consumer Advocate and his office."

The Office of the Consumer Advocate was established more than seven years ago as one of the reforms to deal with the prevailing auto insurance crisis at that time, said Godin.

In addition, it offered a voice to consumers "who felt powerless and defenceless against a mighty and powerful insurance industry," he said.

"Implementing a recommendation that would substantially alter the nature of the office would likely lead to a reoccurrence of the feeling of imbalance and inequity that existed" prior to the office being established, Godin warned.

"It's a positive asset and a valuable service which should remain in its present form."

The Office of the Consumer Advocate handled 1,604 cases in 2011.

About half of those were related to automobile insurance, down from more than 80 per cent in 2005.

House insurance represented 27 per cent of the cases, while 14 per cent were life and health-related, and ‘other’ at five per cent.