Firms challenge LAB choice

Four law firms are applying for a judicial review of the Legal Aid Board (LAB) following a wrangle over who should co-ordinate a multi-party action.

The four firms, which have formed a steering committee for vibration white finger (VWF) claims against British Coal, are challenging the board's decision to grant generic legal aid work to rival firm Traynor & Co. A full hearing may take place next month after leave was granted in November.

The board invited firms to tender for the work and chose South Shields-based Traynors ahead of J Keith Park & Co, in St Helen's, and in preference to the steering committee which comprises Watson Burton, Brian Thompson & Partners, Irwin Mitchell and Hughes James Jones & Jenkins.

The review of the board's decision follows last year's controversy when J Keith Park & Co and Traynors set up a rival steering committee.

The St Helen's-based firm is currently suing Brian Thompson & Partners as well as Watson Burton on behalf of clients who claim that the firms negotiated industrial injury settlements which were too low. The workers allege a conflict of interest between acting for unions and acting for individual members when multi-party cases are settled. The firms are defending the actions.

In the judicial review case, the steering committee claims the board was influenced by the alleged conflict. The steering committee also argues the board underestimated the amount of generic work which would arise from the VWF cases.

But Richard Collins, secretary of the LAB's civil legal aid committee, says the alleged conflict of interest was one of many factors taken into account when the decision was made. The committee which judged the bids was made up of senior staff and was chaired by board member George Pulman QC, he adds.

* PI specialist Rowley Ashworth has negotiated what is thought to be the largest settlement of its kind for a VWF case against British Gas. The firm settled out of court for u110,000 plus u17,235 benefits.