The row over selling accident victims' names for £1 a time, which sparked apoplectic attacks in the heavyweight press about 'ambulance chasing' lawyers 'Americanising' personal injury litigation, raises serious issues: how is an accident victim expected to find a competent lawyer? Are personal injury lawyers really bringing transatlantic litigation to the UK and if so, to whose benefit or detriment?
The need for specialisation in personal injury is now well-recognised. The Law Society Personal Injury Panel is up and running, with 2,000 solicitors throughout the country. Accident Line has started, with an insurance scheme for conditional fees linked to membership of the panel.
One cannot condone any arrangement where a solicitor buys lists of accident victims for what is little more than cold calling. But how are victims to find competent solicitors to handle accident claims? Some will be members of trade unions or related to union members and thus covered by union schemes, others will benefit from insurance arrangements or membership of motoring organisations, all of which refer claimants to competent solicitors. Others may have the sense to telephone the Law Society for a recommendation from the panel. Sadly, though many victims take a stab in the dark by going to a local high street firm which may not have the required skills or they are taken in by adverts or "£1 a go" schemes.
The Law Society must do all it can to protect accident victims by publicising initiatives like the Personal Injury Panel and Accident Line arrangements. The society must tighten the rules, not by stopping advertising, but by ensuring that in key areas where the public is particularly vulnerable specialist skills can only be claimed by those who really have them. Advertising legal services has to be about giving an informed choice to the public, and if a firm advertises a particular expertise, the client is entitled to expect a reasonable level of competence in the field. The present rules simply do not give that assurance.
The linked argument is that personal injury lawyers are creating a US-style "sue for anything" culture. But the truth is very different. Only a quarter of those with potential injury claims bother to bring them. Four million people suffer occupational injuries or illnesses every year. The Health & Safety Executive say that 75 per cent of them are due to failure on the part of the employer, yet only a very small proportion result in successful compensation awards.
If 'Americanisation' means tacky advertising or raising the expectations of clients with hopeless and unmeritorious claims, then I do not support it.
If, however, it means that lawyers are helping people to become more aware of their rights, and accident victims are willing to take action to enforce those rights, then I am all for it.
If 'Americanisation' means developing access to justice through easier procedures, wider funding options and more skilled practitioners, then I am all for that too.
I am also in favour of using US forensic techniques, such as demonstrative evidence to ensure that a judge when considering an award of damages to a child road accident victim, for example, can fully appreciate the impact of the accident on that victim's life.
If 'Americanisation' means these real benefits, and I believe it does, we need to look at just who are the winners and losers. The real winners are the victims, bringing claims for compensation which are presently neglected and recovering ever-improving damages, despite the limitations of our system. The losers are insurance firms, which have had it too much their own way for too long, and which now find themselves paying justified damages to accident victims, on claims which previously may never have been brought.
Andrew Dismore is a solicitor with Russell Jones & Walker and chair of the Association of Personal Injuries Lawyers.