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DOZENS of personal injury firms across the country have been hit by a decision by legal expenses insurance giant Hambro Assistance to slash its panel of solicitors from 50 to four.

But the four firms being kept on by the Colchester-based company, including Manchester firm Pannone & Partners and Sheffield-based Irwin Mitchell, can expect a major upsurge in their work.

The Colchester insurer is understood to have made the decision several weeks ago, but the move has been kept firmly under wraps with a formal announcement expected this week.

As well as Pannone & Partners and Irwin Mitchell, London-based Edwards Son & Noice is also believed to have been retained.

Pannones' managing partner Joy Kingsley said the firm had already hired eight extra fee earners to cope with the “huge increase in work” from Hambros as well as other legal insurers.

The firm is poaching four solicitors and four legal executives from rival Manchester firms, two of each from Betesh Fox & Co, to help with the work.

But Betesh Fox partner Neil Sugarman said the firm hoped to recruit four or five lawyers as replacements and had already recruited an assistant solicitor from a two-partner Manchester firm which had lost its Hambros contract.

“The sole reason this solicitor is joining us is insecurity because he was worried about the consequences of his last firm losing the contract,” said Sugarman.

Personal injury lawyer Geraldine McCool, a partner at Leigh Day & Co's Manchester office, said she had heard of some “very disappointed” firms who had lost the contract.

McCool, whose firm did not bid for the Hambro contract, identified the rationalisation of panels as “an increasingly common trend among work providers such as insurers and trade unions”.

She said: “Both the TGWU and Unison have downsized their panels of solicitors and the Communication Workers Union is also considering it.”