When lawyers work for nothing

No-win, no-fee deals can fill the legal aid void, says Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
The example last week of the 59-year-old cancer patient who sued his health authority because it wrongly diagnosed that he had only three months to live, may seem to some an example of the Americanisation of the UK's legal system. Cyril Smith was granted legal aid, but a White Paper published by the Government this week threatens to tighten access to this benefit. This may lead to more people pursuing cases under an American-style no-win, no-fee basis.

Nearly 3 million people have had accidents in the past year for which they were probably entitled to compensation but failed to claim, according to the Law Society, the body representing solicitors.

Many would have been unaware of the no-win, no-fee system for pursuing compensation which has been available for the past year. Under no-win, no-fee deals, also known as conditional fee arrangements, law firms agree to waive their own charges in personal injury cases if they lose, in return for charging up to double their normal fee if they win.

Solicitors involved in no-win, no-fee deals talk of achieving settlements worth many thousands of pounds - from pounds 500,000 for someone suffering a brain injury in a car accident, to pounds 1,500 for a three- year-old who had some of her hair torn out on Christmas Day by unguarded gears on her brother's toy train.

No-win, no-fee arrangements are available from any solicitor offering personal injury work, says James Kelly, a marketing officer for the Law Society. The society's Accident Line service will match potential claimants with one of the 1,600 solicitors' practices that specialise in this area. The Government introduced the system in July last year to open legal services to more people. People who earn more than pounds 7,500 a year, or who have savings of more than pounds 8,560 are not eligible for legal aid for personal injury cases.

"No-win, no-fee is a very good idea," says Ashley Holmes, head of legal affairs at the Consumers' Association. "It has given consumers another method for paying for getting redress, and adds to the menu of ways to take cases. It adds choice." Mr Holmes says it may even be appropriate for people who are already covered by legal expenses insurance, often a feature of home contents policies or holiday insurance.

People should consider claiming small amounts themselves, advises Mr Holmes. "If you are thinking of claiming pounds 3,000, you could do it yourself under the small claims court. Good solicitors should explain the options, or you could go to a local Citizens' Advice Bureau."

Potential plaintiffs who do not have a solicitor should start with the Law Society's Accident Line, suggests the Consumers' Association. Earlier this year a scheme run by Conquest Legal Marketing was launched, covering 250 solicitors' offices, but the Consumers' Association prefers the wider coverage of the Law Society's scheme.

The Law Centres Federation, which represents offices that give free legal advice to people who cannot afford lawyers' bills, welcomed the no-win, no-fee system. John Richardson, its spokesman, said: "In the absence of a properly funded legal aid system, or access for everyone to a free service, it is the best of the options available. But we would have the concern that it will not provide a solution to people who have commercially non-viable cases, that are too small, or in cases where complex issues of law are involved, where the practitioners of law find it difficult to assess the chances of winning."

However, no-win, no-fee deals do not mean no financial risk. Solicitors who are part of the Law Society's Accident Line or Conquest's National Solicitors' Network offer free initial consultations but there may be costs that are not covered by a no-win, no-fee agreement. These can include expert witness fees, which can be pounds 1,000 a day, and barrister and trial costs. If you lose a case you could have to pay the other side's costs. Both schemes offer insurance cover for these costs. Premiums start at pounds 85 with the Law Society, or pounds 175 with the National Solicitors' Network.

Those who have suffered injury should keep an open mind about which accidents might lead to a successful legal case. A spokeswoman for the National Solicitors' Network says: "Many accident victims are suffering unnecessary financial hardship in addition to their injuries. Compensation is often awarded for injuries sustained not just in the workplace or in road traffic accidents, but at home, playing sport, or even in the local cafe."

q Law Society Accident Line 0500 192939; National Solicitors' Network 0800 009911.