Disaster fund set up by lawyers

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THE LAW Society has allocated pounds 5m to meet a flood of claims from relatives of victims of the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy who are suing their solicitors.

Around 100 Liverpool fans and their families are bringing a class action in which they allege they were negligently advised by lawyers after 96 people were crushed to death at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. They claim their cases against South Yorkshire Police Force were either "under-settled" or the solicitor ignored the possibility of an action for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the Solicitors Indemnity Fund (SIF), the company which pays out insurance claims when solicitors are negligent, confirmed that pounds 5m had been allocated in expectation of a class action against a number of law firms.

Manchester solicitor Mark McGhee, who is co-ordinating the class action, said he was not surprised that the SIF had set aside such a fund. "We have 100 claims and are investigating all of them in respect of the action or lack action taken by solicitors after the Hillsborough tragedy."

A steering group of 147 firms law firms, mostly from Liverpool, was set up to handle all the claims for compensation. They agreed a formula for compensation of either pounds 1,000, pounds 2,000 or pounds 3,000. Kevin Robinson, chairman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, said that most of the cases were legally aided and the solicitors processed them as quickly as possible. "Some of them were done over the telephone without them even seeing the solicitor," Mr Robinson said.

He said many of the men were unemployed and because the offers were being made around Christmas, they felt they had no choice but to accept the money. "We want the solicitors to be held accountable for what they did... They told them if they didn't take the money they would lose their homes [if the case went to court and they lost the case]," he said.

So far only one claim has been settled against a law firm for negligent advice in a Hillsborough case. Last year, Peter Bromilow, 40, diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, was awarded more than pounds 100,000 in compensation and costs against Linskills, a leading Liverpool firm of solicitors. In 1990 he accepted just pounds 3,000 from the police, after advice from the firm.

Many Liverpool fans who had been at the match and had either been injured at the time or developed psychological illnesses brought claims against the police. These were mostly met by the police insurance company after the claimants had taken advice from their solicitors. Three of the claimants have committed suicide while others' marriages have broken down under the strain.

The SIF spokeswoman said she could not reveal how many firms were implicated before the litigation was up and running. The SIF has allocated pounds 255m for negligent claims against solicitors it estimates it will have to meet next year.

t A private prosecution against two former South Yorkshire police officers held responsible for the Hillsborough tragedy by the families of victims was given the go-ahead yesterday. Committal proceedings against the two will continue today after Leeds magistrates rejected an application to have the case dismissed.