Law: The brothers for the workers: Union power may have declined, but membership can still offer big legal benefits. Sharon Wallach reports

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The Independent Online
LEGAL services have become increasingly important to trade unions as part of their recruitment programmes. Indeed, they are perhaps the most significant of the benefits offered to members, as the industrial power of the unions has declined over the years.

Three years ago, for instance, the Law Society and the Trades Union Congress jointly launched Unionlaw. This scheme gives members of some 40 participating unions free diagnostic interviews with one of 2,500 solicitors' firms for any legal problem, other than work-related issues. Costs are met by the unions.

In the summer, the south-western region of the GMB (General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades) union set up a service to provide legal protection in the event of road accidents to members and their families. That scheme is being run through the union's solicitors, Robin Thompson & Partners, which works in tandem with its sister firm of Brian Thompson & Partners, together forming the largest trade union solicitors in the United Kingdom, and what has been described as the first national personal injury firm. Between them, the firms have 17 offices, 77 partners, 300 fee earners and more than 1,000 staff.

Robin and Brian Thompson are brothers. In the late Forties they joined the firm founded 20 years earlier by their father, W H Thompson, to look after the interests of working people.

David Skidmore, the retiring co-ordinating partner of Robin Thompson, describes the firm's progress: 'In the Fifties and Sixties, we serviced the trade union movement. Our lawyers had to do a lot of travelling and we introduced a policy of opening offices in the major industrial centres, where our clients were, with 50 to 75 people in each.

'By the Seventies, the practice had become too big to remain a family firm - the brothers were the only partners - and in 1974, they split it into two. Brian looked after the west of England and Wales; Robin was responsible for the east of the country and Scotland.'

In 1980, Robin Thompson Scotland was set up as a separate firm to handle the large amount of legal work following the oil boom of the Seventies. The Nineties is the decade of Europe, according to Mr Skidmore, and the firm now has a presence in Brussels. 'Our policy continues to be to serve our clients wherever they choose to go.'

Neither declining union membership nor the recession seem to have made major inroads into the Thompsons' workload, says Mr Skidmore. The firms handle 40,000 cases a year. 'A lot of people don't make any claim if they are injured at work. But this tends to change as the economic situation worsens and jobs are underthreat,' he says.

The size of the joint practice keeps the firms cost-effective. 'Most of our competitors have to travel long distances to see clients,' Mr Skidmore says. 'In our case that is one cost totally eliminated.'

A major source of work for the firms is a series of industrial deafness claims that began 10 years ago. The firms have been responsible for settling 'hundreds of thousands' of such cases, according to Mr Skidmore. 'Our rate of expansion has partly revolved round this deluge.'

Another rich source of work is claims for 'vibration white finger' which can affect operators of pneumatic drills. 'But these are finite areas of work,' adds Mr Skidmore. 'They prop up the firm, but as they tail off we will have to adjust and look carefully at our future expansion programme.'

On the whole nowadays, trade unions do not employ large teams of in-house lawyers. Instead they have legal officers whose responsibility is to farm out work to independent firms. 'They try to deal with tribunal work themselves, and come to us for more complicated matters,' Mr Skidmore says.

The most significant aspect of the legal services benefit is that it is paid for by the unions and is then available free to members. Unlike the state-funded legal aid system, the service is there for all, with no means testing.

'There is no better system of legal aid in the world,' Mr Skidmore says. 'Litigation is slow enough, and legal aid is an impediment to the smooth running of personal injury claims. We just get on with it.' The Thompsons' success rate is high - the loss rate in cases brought to court is 2 per cent.

One of their recent successes was the award of more than pounds 147,000 damages to one of the firemen who fought the King's Cross fire. His legal costs had been underwritten by his union.

Personal injury claims account for the vast bulk of Thompsons' work. 'But if a client has other problems, we try to look after them. We do not deal with divorce, but we would offer, say, a cheap service for house buying or making a will. We also try to keep clients away from the financial planning sharks and our commercial department advises on investment of compensation payments.'

The Thompson firms have an active equal opportunities group and work closely with unions in this area. Strangely, though, says Mr Skidmore, 'for some reason, we don't get asked to do much on race issues'.

Political commitment is obviously essential for anyone working at one of the firms. 'But we've got to be careful,' Mr Skidmore says. 'Law is law, and political views could get in the way of doing the job properly.'

Doing the job properly means a series of efficient internal systems. Each union client is appointed a partner in each of the Thompsons' offices, and every facet of running the firm is overseen by a nominated partner.

Brian Thompson & Partners is to move into the Robin Thompson offices in central London next month; the firms already operate a joint management system. 'It will certainly cut down on duplication and overheads. Perhaps it is a move towards merger. Behind the scenes we are one firm, but whether we will eventually join up I don't know,' says Mr Skidmore.

The Scottish firm will remain separate for the time being, until there is clarification of EC leglisation on partnerhips between lawyers in member states.

(Photograph omitted)