Industry news roundup: week ended 24 Sept 2012:
This week, it seems like everywhere you turned there was a story about how someone, somewhere was milking personal injury compensation cases as hard as they possibly could.
New research recently revealed that over the course of 2011, more than £5 million was spent by local schools across the UK for personal injury claims made by schoolchildren – but only half of that sum actually went to injured students. The other half went straight into the pockets of personal injury solicitors, sometimes in instances that saw legal fees dwarf actual compensation payments!
The recent survey, which was carried out under a Freedom of Information request, saw that there was a serious disparity amongst payouts made to schoolchildren and the fees their lawyers walked out with. One of the most egregious cases involved a student who injured his finger after getting it trapped in a door, leading to a £3,750 compensation payout for the schoolboy, but resulted in £36,000 in court costs and legal fees paid to the solicitor firm representing the injured student. A ‘good neighbour’ who was nominated for a community award has been branded a ‘liar’ in court after making a false personal injury claim.
The avarice of personal injury lawyers is already legendary, but there’s always the occasional story that also makes you lose faith in humanity as well, such as the story that a man formerly commended by his local authority was caught red-handed in trying to wheedle some cash from the very same council by trumping up a false personal injury claim. Furhan Mustafa was caught in the lie recently by Salford council investigators, resulting in the district judge throwing out his claim for £3,000 – and ordering that he pay the £5,500 the town incurred in legal costs defending the spurious claim.
The worst part about this is that the 22 year old man had become a finalist in the Good Neighbour category for the Be Proud community awards for Manchester council. Originally nominated because of the time he spent working with vulnerable people, Mustafa was even praised in a letter to the Queen by one of the elderly neighbours he helped out.
Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke recently announced that those victimised by domestic violence will not lose access to legal aid in order to provide no win no fee lawyers in civil cases they bring against civil partners.
The amendments being made to the legal aid bill, which has proven wildly unpopular because of how scaled back access to justice could be for those who need to rely upon no win no fee arrangements in order to bring personal injury claims against defendants, are ‘formidable’ ones, according to the justice secretary as he announced the concessions the government has agreed to in part. Clarke made an attempt to reach out to the bill’s opponents by lowering the threshold required for proving domestic violence had occurred as MPs continued to debate it after peers struck blow after blow against the measure.
Originally, the government would have male or female domestic violence victims resort to official channels in order to gain access to legal aid for divorce and other civil proceedings, though legal aid would still be made available for all restraining order cases. However, the justice secretary made the announcement that the government would be extending the definition of domestic violence allow victim refuges and GPs to provide evidence, while also extending the time period that domestic violence victims can claim legal aid from one year to two.
Clarke categorised the government’s response as quite generous due to its views concerning the importance of providing support to victims of domestic violence. Those who have been victimised over the past two years will likewise be given a blanket exception, an independent source from the ministry of justice added.
The prime minister has been urged once more to abandon the plans of his government for no win no fee legal agreement reforms by the parents of Madeleine McCann, according to recent reports.
In their first public political intervention, Kate and Gerry McCann have joined several high-profile tabloid newspaper victims and libel reform campaigners in order to warn David Cameron off from his plans to reform the conditional fee arrangements that no win no fee lawyers rely upon to provide individuals without deep pockets with access to justice.
The warning comes in the form of a letter, delivered in time before the House of Lords’ third reading of the new legal aid bill, a proposed piece of legislation that has seen its downfall nine times already through amendments made by peers. The McCanns are joined by other tabloid victims such as Christopher Jefferies, who prevailed against eight different newspapers stemming from libelous statements printed about him during the inquiry into Joanna Yeats, and marks the first time that Madeleine’s parents have come forward to make their concerns known about the legal reforms to injury claims proposed by the government.
The letter was co-ordinated by the Libel Reform Campaign and Hacked Off, an organisation that has campaigned for public inquiries to be made into phone hacking. Both groups have protested abut the proposed £350 million in cuts from the annual legal aid budget for the Ministry of Justice, claiming that a reconfiguration of conditional fee agreements will prevent claimants from being able to afford to employ lawyers, as the reforms will no longer provide for them to recover their lawyers’ success fees and expensive insurance premiums from losing defendants; winning claimants will instead see their damages awards reduced in order to pay for the legal fees and court costs.
Proposed changes to the way no win no fee legal claims work in libel and privacy cases would leave ordinary citizens having to deal with rules that are both ‘wrong and unfair,’ according to a libel reform campaigner group.
The prime minister has recently received a letter urging him to think twice about instituting changes to the no win no fee accident claims system, as libel reform campaigners and ‘tabloid press victims’ have come together to protest the new changes. The new bill, which includes restrictions on ‘after the event’ insurance and personal injury claims that use conditional fee arrangements, is set to have its final day in the House of Lords soon, with acceptance of the bill preventing claimants from recovering their insurance premiums and their solicitors’ success fees from the losing side.
The campaigners say in the open letter that the bill’s scope should be narrowed to exclude libel and privacy cases. The campaigners have strong objections to the measure, which was called ‘unjust’ in the letter, as it will only result in severe restrictions to ordinary Brits in libel and privacy cases when it comes to access to justice. Transparency in the public interest, free religious debate, and scientific breakthroughs could all be threatened under this new bill, with ordinary defendants finding it harder to find support for legal actions taken against them by large, deep-pocketed institutions that wish to silence whistle-blowers.
Moreover, victims of abuse from tabloids will have no recourse against tem for gross misrepresentation, false accusations, or phone hacking attempts, the letter also said.
The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers recently welcomed a decision made by the House of Lords to offer exemptions to industrial disease victims from the no win no fee limitations in the new Legal Aid bill, experts say.
APIL chief executive, Deborah Evans, stated that the new decision was excellent news for those Brits who had been victims of industrial diseases, calling it ‘imperative’ for the Government to not overturn these crucial Legal Aid bill amendments when the House of Commons takes up the debate. However, other injury victims that are not covered under the exemption have suffered a devastating blow, the personal injury compensation expert said, as these innocent classes of people may have had their lives completely upended through the actions of others yet will be denied access to justice under the new rules.
Ms Evans said that there are several problems with the new Legal Aid bill over and above genuine claimants losing access to justice. Under the proposed rules in the bill, the chief executive said, those who are still permitted to claim will see their damages cut by significant amounts.
The bill is nothing but ‘a backwards step,’ Ms Evans said, as a civilised society interested in justice and morality needs to take steps to ensure the vulnerable are protected properly. If these proposed changes become law, in the years that follow the new rules it will soon become prevalent that those innocent people who have suffered injuries and then had to suffer the indignity of having their access to justice taken away from them will have no choice but to rely upon the Government to see to their needs.
A bank executive shattered her ankle at team building exercise recently, resulting in her launching a personal injury claim against the Guildford indoor cimbing centre where the injury occurred, accident claim experts say.
Louise Pinchbeck, an employee of Halifax/HBOS living in Cheam, had been attendance at a ‘team building day’ that had been organised by her employers when the injury leading to her personal injury compensation claim occurred. Ms Pinchbeck, forty four years of age, had just conquered a forty foot high climbing wall at the centre before being asked to attempt climbing down a ‘bouldering wall,’ a less intimidating twelve foot climb designed to be undertaken without the benefit of a belay line or other type of safety rope.
Ms Pinchbeck’s arms had become tired as she descended the Craggy Island climbing centre’s bouldering wall, prompting her to leap down the final four to five feet to the ground. However, she sustained compound fractures to her right ankle upon alighting upon the crash mat, leaving her not only walking with a limp but also unable to participate in running, one of her favourite activities.
The bank employee has since launched a compensation claim against the operators of the climbing centre on the grounds that Craggy Island staff had neglected to properly inform her of the hazards she could potentially face in her descent of the bouldering wall. A London High Court hearing recently ruled that Ms Pinchbeck was found to bear one third of the responsibility for the actions she took leading up to her ankle injuries, but Craggy Island Ltd was found to be responsible for the remaining two thirds, which could lead to a total compensation payment of up to £100,000 in damages.
In an ironic twist of events, a no win no fee claims management firm finds themselves a defendant in a personal injury compensation case where a secretary fell down some office stairs, suffering a broken wrist.
No win no fee accident claims service firm Quantum, which provides help for those in need of making work accident claims against their employers, has been named as a defendant by Rose Clark, the 56 year old Aberdeen native and employee of the company who suffered an injury on the job in March of 2007. Mrs Clark’s injuries were so severe that it was necessary for her to have plates surgically fitted within her wrist to facilitate her recovery from the fall, which she claims is the fault of her employer, as the staircase lacked adequate banisters and was too steep and narrow. She is asking for a £13,500 compensation award from Quantum at Edinburgh’s Court of Session.
Mrs Clark, who told the court that she was left ‘in mortal agony’ after the fall, and barely able to speak once she regained her feet, recounted how the colleague who discovered her in the wake of the injury suspected the woman had broken her neck due to the way she was lying at the bottom of the staircase. The offices were visited in the wake of the accident by a council inspector, discovering that one of its steps had been loose at the time of the incident.
Quantum argued that the injured woman might have suffered the fall by one of her high-heel shoes catching on a trouser leg. However, Mrs Clark rebutted the assertion, stating that she would have undoubtedly known if that was the cause of her fall.
Equestrian enthusiasts such as livery yards, riding schools, and riders have all been warned against no win no fee claims, with one legal firm stating that proper liability insurance must be in place to avoid costly personal injury compensation claims.
One accident solicitor has recently remarked that it has been getting a steady stream of calls every day in the wake of advertising on Facebook recently, with one representative from the law firm stating that riding cases are indistinguishable form other kinds of injury claims, as negligence principles are the same. The number of equestrian claims has gone up over the past decade, the solicitor representative added, but attributed it less to a change in mentality and more to an increased number of riding enthusiasts.
The firm has represented several riders who were injured, such as one who had fallen from their horse and sustained injuries when a large HGV passed them at speed. Another rider made a successful claim against the owner of her mount as a horse whipped around, breaking her arm – she prevailed at court because she had not been warned about the horse’s behaviour.
South Essex Insurance Brokers representative David Buckton warned both businesses and riders to take steps to ensure they were prepared, stating that no win no fee claims are everywhere. Taking steps to secure the proper paperwork in order and making sure liability insurance is in place is a crucial step to safeguard against someone making a claim, Mr Buckton also said.
The Association of British Riding Schools also weighed in on the issue, adding that riding schools need to undertake risk assessments regularly and have comprehensive paperwork, according to Julian Marczak, the association’s representative. Courts will routinely ignore good work if not recorded, Mr Marczak cautioned, urging proprietors to document everything exhaustively and to pick an insurer that has a solid understanding of the sector.
Injury solicitors have recently warned that the new Legal Aid bill will limit access to justice to many victims of medical negligence.
Harlow-based personal injury lawyers Attwaters, located in West Gate, remark that the reforms, which are designed to cut Government costs, will ‘deny justice’ to vulnerable claimants, as legal professionals will no longer be able to rely on no win no fee conditional fee agreements, as the reforms seek to restrict their ability to charge success fees to defendants. David Kerry, medical negligence expert and law firm partner, recently remarked that the proposals need to be rethought by ministers, adding that many firms throughout the UK have deep concerns that Legal Aid withdrawals from medical negligence claimants will severely limit their access to justice.
With so many claimants suffering and in pain, and possibly not even able to work, their only” recourse would be to rely on no win no fee arrangements, even though many solicitors may be reluctant to take up a complex case due to the limitations placed on their ability to collect success fees by the proposed legislation. This could leave these highly vulnerable claimants with no access to justice, Mr Kerry warned, and could result in children with permanent brain damage from a birth injury lacking the financial support they would throughout their life.
The NHS’s additional claims investigation costs would more than wipe out any savings made by the Government through the Legal Aid bill’s changes, he also said. Mr Kerry’s concerns are shared by Rob Halfon, MP for Harlow, who said that he will campaign for Legal Aid bill concessions to be made as it makes its way through Parliament.
No win no fee lawyers concerned over the reforms to the legal industry have been postponed until April of 2013, giving solicitors an additional six months of breathing room from the original October 2012 date.
While the Ministry of Justice is keen to limit no win no fee arrangements due to their view that the legal fees that accompany such awards are too much of a burden on defendants who are found liable during personal injury compensation cases, the MoJ announced the postponement recently in an effort to allow legal businesses and law firms more preparation time for the coming changes. The first part of the new reforms, which contains language pertaining to legal aid reforms, was already delayed by six months to the same April 2013 date in an announcement by the Government in December of 2011.
The second part of the bill includes language abolishing success fees and related legal costs from conditional fee arrangements. Instead of defendants bearing the burden, instead claimants will have to pay their lawyers directly out of their compensation awards.
Largely due to the recommendations made by Lord Justice Jackson in 2010, the Bill calls for reform to civil litigation costs in order to curb insurance premiums from rising across the industry. However, Lord Justice Jackson has taken issue with the decision by the Government to cut legal aid, stating that it was never his recommendation to do so.
The proposed legal aid cuts have been controversial ones, as many proponents of legal aid have protested in saying that the reforms could reduce or eliminate access to justice for those who need it the most, as they are unable to pay for expensive legal representation.