Firms on British Coal case come under fire

The UK’s largest class action has been overshadowed by calls for the Government to sue 18 claimant law firms, which have been involved in the case against British Coal.

The substantive cases involve thousands of claims by miners who have suffered pulmonary disease and a condition known as vibration white finger. Law firms have already earned some £333m out of the litigation and liability could be as high as £6bn. Some 700 firms have been involved in the litigation.

Eighteen law firms have been accused by John Mann, Labour MP for North Nottinghamshire, of failing to tell their clients that they could have employed other solicitors “for nothing”. Instead, the clients paid money to the firms, Mann has alleged.

Mann told the House of Commons at the beginning of March that either the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) should sue the firms or they should be struck off by the Law Society.

The 18 firms received extra cash from compensation awards, whereas they were contracted to only be paid by the DTI, Mann alleges. To remain within the law, the firms allegedly should have informed their clients about other firms that would have been paid only out of the DTI payments, Mann told the Commons.

“Did the solicitors, or did they not, tell the individual client that they could go to another solicitor and get this work done for nothing?” said Mann. He added that if they “failed to do that” then “the case in law against them seems absolute”.

The Government is investigating claims of “gross overcharging” by solicitors in the case, while the Law Society is due to launch an investigation into claims management companies involved in the class action.

The DTI is unlikely to sue because, according to a spokesman for the department, “it is an issue between the client and the solicitor”. The Law Society said it has received around 100 complaints about lawyers’ fees in the cases.