By Plymouth Herald – 15th May 2014
A PARLIAMENTARY inquiry has heard how victims of a fatal lung cancer will be left “significantly worse off” by the Government’s reform of legal aid.
The cross-party Justice Select Committee of MPs is investigating the risk of mesothelioma sufferers losing 25% of their compensation payments to their lawyers under changes quietly announced in December.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, which was commonly used in shipbuilding, construction and the automotive industry.
Plymouth has a high number of victims because of asbestos-related activities in the past at Devonport Dockyard.
The Herald revealed last year mesothelioma was the underlying cause in 120 deaths in the four constituencies covering Plymouth between 2008 and 2012.
The controversy over compensation stems from the end of “no win no fee” agreements, which guaranteed full compensation to successful claimants – and insured them against the cost of losing.
They were restricted in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act, but that compensation is to be stripped out for legal costs for mesothelioma claimants was only slipped out in December.
In the Commons, Ian McFall, head of asbestos litigation of Thompsons Solicitors, which acts for victims of the injury and has an office in Plymouth, argued some law firms struggling to survive in the ultra-competitive personal injuries industry will “look to take the maximum ‘success fees’ to the disadvantage of claimants”.
He also claimed the proposal, to be introduced in July, was agreed between the Government and the insurance industry “behind closed doors” to deliver “significant financial savings to the insurance industry through reducing the transaction costs of mesothelioma claims”.
Mr McFall alleged there was an “intrinsic link” between the legal reforms and the insurance industry agreeing to fund a £350 million compensation package for around 3,000 people unable to trace the employer who exposed them to asbestos dust, which passed through Parliament earlier this year.
He added: “The likely net effect of LASPO on mesothelioma claims will be to leave claimants significantly worse off.”
Adrian Budgen, head of workplace illness of solicitors Irwin Mitchell, which has represented thousands of mesothelioma victims, said the illness should continue to have an exemption as it is “uniformly fatal”.
He added: “They are reluctant claimants because in my experience people work very hard and are genuinely not applying for benefits. So they are not rushing to make a claim. But they recognise they have got dependents that they need to provide for.
“I do feel that any indication they will have to pay costs out of their damages will put off a lot of people.”
Doug Jewell, vice-chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum, said while some solicitors will not take a “success fee” from claimants “that’s not everyone”.
He added: “Especially as the personal injury lawyer market becomes more competitive they will seek to maximise the money they will get. They will not see it as the upper limit – they will see it as the flat rate.
He said given that the illness can strike so quickly the idea victims will have “time to investigate who will pay ‘success fees’ and charge them less for ‘success fees’ doesn’t bear any relation to reality”.
The Association of British Insurers rejected any suggestion of a “dirty deal” with the Government and the level of “success fee” was “an agreement between the solicitor and claimant”, not insurers.