Sunday, 19 August 2012

Panel beater

My attention was drawn this week to a report of the Bristol law firm sued by a paralysed motorcyclist who said they "bungled" his claim.

54-year-old Kenny Jordan, wheelchair-bound after a road accident in May 2004, was referred to what the news article describes as "insurance panel firm Clarke Willmott (CW)", in Bristol. Mr Jordan lives in Manchester.

It seems they recovered a chunky £512,000 for him by negotiation. Mr Jordan talked to other people after the event who suggested that he should have received at least £1 million. CW have now agreed to pay Mr Jordan £500,000 (on top of the original settlement) plus his legal fees in bringing the negligence claim against them.

Unfortunately, these things can happen (though less frequently in this industry than in some others) but some of the facts of this case as stated by Mr Jordan's current solicitor are remarkable.

He says that in the course of dealing with the claim for Manchester-based Mr Jordan, his former lawyers never went to see him, never took a detailed statement, never interviewed any witnesses, never obtained any expert medical evidence. On that foundation they settled a £1 million claim at half value.

We’re talking about one of the big national law firms receiving so much of their work from legal expenses insurers. These are the insurance companies whose policy is usually bolted on your main road traffic insurance policy or household insurance for tens of pounds. It's called before the event, or BTE, insurance.

Many claimant lawyers do not seek membership of panels for various reasons. Those include that they are unwilling to pay "subscriptions", unwilling to pay referral fees to the insurers for individual cases and unwilling to receive discounted remuneration for doing the work.

Some believe that such arrangements lead inevitably to a squeeze on margins so that the cost-effectiveness of the case becomes more important than the injured client’s best interests.

BTE insurers have told me (when denying my clients/their insured freedom to choose their lawyer) that the determining feature of panel solicitors is that they are specialists - subject to high quality standards and rigorous audits…

There are plenty of top class expert personal injury (and other) lawyers in and around Manchester who would have done the job properly, with the client on their doorstep. Why does a case like this end up on the books of a law firm 200 miles away who, probably for that reason, don’t deal with it properly?

The only answer is that it serves the commercial interests of insurers, who control the process. It doesn’t serve the interests of the injured victim, plainly.

How many others out there? This was a big case, easier to identify and almost a no-brainer on the reported facts for a negligence claim but what about smaller claims being pushed through the mill with similar lack of attention. They’ll maybe never come to light.

Accident victims may think they are better off retaining a local lawyer. Someone they know. Someone who only gets paid on results. 

Someone whose masters are not the insurers.

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