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Defending ‘no Win No Fee’ Legal Arrangements

Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported on the unusual story of an Essex taxi driver who is facing prosecution for apparently falsely claiming that an accident forced him to retire.

Michael Seabrook alleged that an accident that took place in April 2006 rendered him unable to return to work, and claimed GBP52,000 in compensation for lost earnings.

However, the insurer who Mr Seabrooke was claiming his injury compensation from, Aviva, smelt a rat and instructed private detectives to track Mr Seabrook’s movements, suspecting that he was still working. They were right.

Footage obtained between 2008 and 2009 clearly showed the claimant still driving his taxi. On the strength of this, Mr Seabrook’s claim plummeted to only GBP500 and he also suffered the further blow of being ordered to pay GBP3000 in legal costs, which meant he incurred a net loss of GBP2500.

Mr Seabrook, understandably, disputes Aviva’s claims but now has the further ignominy of facing possible prosecution and imprisonment for insurance fraud. His lawyer argues that he’s suffered enough, both in terms of the legal costs ruling and his ill health (although he can still work, the accident apparently did have some effect upon him).

Aviva’s solicitor, John Lezemore, said his client was taking the action against Mr Seabrook to act as a ‘deterrent’ against other fraudulent actions and criticised the culture of ‘no win no fee’ claims:

“The advent of accident management companies and no win no fee lawyers means that all fraudsters need to invest in their fraud is a day of their time at trial, if the case goes that far.”

This is a fair summation of what most commentators have to say about the no win no fee or Conditional Fee Arrangement (CFA) which, as I have mentioned in a previous article, was launched in 1995 by the Conservative government to replace legal aid for certain kinds of litigation: personal injury claims and libel cases among others.

‘No win no fee’ seems to be some sort of pariah in common parlance: to most people it conjures up images of seedy, greasy conmen enticing chancers to make a claim for something that hasn’t really happened.

As a spokesman, of sorts, for the industry, I find that generalisation a little too, well, generalised. There are two issues here: firstly, any system, as I have argued before, is susceptible to abuse and we shouldn’t let newsworthy opportunists like Mr Seabrook tar everyone using the system with the same brush.

There are plenty of people out there who have been genuinely very badly hurt as the innocent victims of accidents and there needs to be an area of the law in place to ensure that they have access to justice and compensation if needs be.

The motorcyclist from Wiltshire chopped up by a van driver who wasn’t looking where he was going, who has to guzzle morphine just to stave away the pains from his broken back, pelvis and hips, and who can barely help look after his children, surely couldn’t be labelled a ‘money grabber’ or a fraudster.

Claims management companies are expressly forbidden under UK law and Ministry of Justice guidelines from canvassing or indulging in what are often so gleefully called ‘ambulance chasing’ tactics. They exist to hold out a comforting hand to ordinary accident victims, perhaps naive in the ways of legal procedures, to claim money to rebuild their lives in as simple a way as possible.

If a victim is offered such a service by a pencil-moustached gent in a pinstripe suit, he’s probably a bit of a Del Boy and is unlikely to be operating either within the law, or with his client’s best interest in mind.

Most accident victims would rather have their lives back to the way they were. Money can never wholly, truly, compensate for a debilitating injury, but it can help to iron out the further stress of not being able to pay the mortgage because they can no longer stand up unassisted.

Secondly, ‘no win no fee’ was brought in to provide a more even service for claimants. Back when legal aid was the route to personal injury litigation for lower-income claimants, the solicitor knew he was going to get paid regardless, so he would often take on a case he knew he was unlikely to win, giving his unwitting client the false impression that he was on to a sure-fire success while he was at it.

With CFAs this doesn’t happen: if the solicitor loses, he has to write off his fees. This way, lawyers these days tend to be that little bit more honest about the projected outcome of their case.

Sure, no win no fee may be flawed, and there are going to be those members of society who will always try to take a short-cut through it to get an easy buck, but it has a valuable place in Britain, for the time being.