Editorial – CFAs blamed for rising council tax bills – but ‘That’s Life’

The former host of “That’s Life” is to become the toothsome face of the Accident Advice Helpline (AAH), which claims to be the country’s biggest claims company.

It is a brave move for a consumer champion to associate herself directly with the tarnished brand that is ‘no win, no fee’. “I’m sorry to hear about your accident,” Rantzen reassures a prospective client in the ad in the Daily Mirror. “If the accident wasn’t your fault then you should claim.” It might not be as catchy nor as obnoxious as The Accident Group’s “Where there’s a blame, there’s a claim”-line, but you get the idea.

Certainly, Rantzen has stuck her neck on the line for the product. “I have checked the company’s credentials and track record, and have met a number of its clients, and I was extremely impressed,” she says in a statement on AAH’s web site. Apparently, the company docks its clients a flat fee of £299 from damages to cover their costs. It promises not to engage in cold calling or any other hard-sell tactics that would have caused rightful indignation on the part of the “That’s Life” team.

Frankly, lawyers will welcome any support they can get these days for conditional fee agreements. CFAs are now unthinkingly seized upon by the media as shorthand for ‘all that is wrong with compensation culture’.

So it was this month when a new report was published by the Local Government Association and Zurich Municipal. It was revealed that more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of councils had experienced an increase in the number of tenuous claims post-Access to Justice. Responses from 212 councils in England and Wales showed that 85 per cent of local authorities blamed CFAs for increasing their annual costs.

Depressing maybe, but then again the researchers went out of their way to highlight “the positive side of CFAs” in ensuring “access to justice for those on low incomes” and encouraging best practice in local government. One council describes how after 14 claims in 15 months against one set of steps outside a health centre, it was forced “to monitor the situation on a monthly basis to ensure that up to date documentation was available for each claim”. Fixing the steps might have been a better idea, but it was progress of sorts.

There will be little surprise that such insights into CFAs were overlooked in the Daily Mail’s reporting of the research (“Greedy lawyers and crooked claims firms exploiting the compensation culture are helping to force up council tax demands,” the article began). And so it was heartening to read Esther Rantzen deliver a stirring defence of CFAs in The Guardian this week. “No-win no-fee was something we campaigned for on “That’s Life”,” she said. “I think there is a patronising condescension from people who can afford high-price lawyers.” The clients of AAH, she reminded a cynical press, were “vulnerable people who risk loss of livelihood, people who really do need this compensation and do deserve it and have been badly hurt”. “There is a myth, the compensation-culture myth, but in fact in this country, with the stiff upper lip attitude towards life, there are millions of pounds of compensation going unclaimed,” she said.