A trip to the law courts

YOU AND YOUR RIGHTS How do you claim if you fall foul of a cracked pavement? Wendy James has some advice
You're happily walking along a footpath when you trip on a raised paving stone, hitting your head as you fall. You spend several hours in casualty and end up with a clean bill of health but a nasty black eye. Can you seek damages, and from whom?

It is vital to collect evidence immediately. Have photographs taken of your injuries and the accident site. Use a matchbox or coin to show the scale of unevenness of the pavement. More than two centimetres goes against maintenance guidelines. Get a GP to confirm your injuries in writing.

There are three courses of action you can take:

Ring the complaints line of your local council's environmental services department (listed in the phone directory) to find out who is responsible for the footpath. For a claim form send a sae to Clifford Howell, vice- president of the Pedestrians' Association, 2 Thicket Avenue, Fishponds, Bristol BS16 4DH. He has had nearly 20 years' experience and can usually tell whether compensation is likely. His help is free (though pounds 15 membership of the group is worthwhile as you get useful advice leaflets). Send the form and copies of evidence to the local authority or company's insurers.

In complicated cases, involving serious injuries for example, Mr Howell suggests using a specialist solicitor, as does the Citizens' Advice Bureau. The Law Society's Accident Line (freephone 0500 19 29 39) will put you in touch with a local solicitor who will give a free half-hour consultation about compensation and likelihood of success. If you don't qualify for legal aid, make a conditional fee agreement (you pay your solicitor only if you win) and take out an pounds 85 after-the-event insurance policy. This covers you for up to pounds 100,000 costs should you lose.

If you cannot afford insurance, pursue the matter yourself through the small claims court, but proving negligence can be difficult. You have a better chance against utility companies than a local authority, but if a company decides to fight, it can ask for the case to be heard in the court nearest its HQ - which could be miles from where you live. In Mr Howell's experience, you have most hope of success if you can prove that warning signs were inadequate or statutory inspections of the site were flouted.

Each year, more than 300 people die and an estimated three million are injured by falls on cracked, slippery or badly maintained pavements. Only one in five people attempt to seek compensation, even though they may have needed medical treatment for their injuries. But it could be worth it.

Pedestrians' Association, 126 Aldersgate Street, London EC1A 4JQ (0171- 490 0750).