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Law: Will we become a nation of litigants?: Sharon Wallach looks at Accident Line, a scheme aimed at encouraging accident victims to claim compensation

Whether Britain, like America, is becoming a land of litigants is a popular dinner-table topic. And if we are, why? Is it on the principle that the guilty or the negligent should be punished? Can proving blame for an accident aid psychological recovery? Is greed the motive? Whatever the reason, there are still many people who could go to court but don't, in particular, victims of accidents.

The Law Society last week launched its Accident Line, a revamped version of its successful ALAS] scheme, both aimed at encouraging accident victims to claim compensation. The original scheme was launched in 1987, on the back of research that had established that up to 75 per cent of people entitled to compensation did not claim it.

Last year, says the Law Society, 21,000 people were helped by the scheme. New research by Gallup suggests that 6.8 million people in this country were injured in accidents during the past three years, but only a fifth of them took advice about entitlement to compensation. Of these, only 12 per cent consulted a solicitor.

The Accident Line service is offered by around 1,200 law firms in England and Wales, each of which has at least one solicitor who is a member of the Law Society's specialist personal injury panel. The new line promises a free initial half-hour interview at all the firms displaying the bandaged thumb logo.

The scheme has received the blessing of the British Medical Association. According to the Gallup survey, of the 21 per cent who sought advice, almost half consulted their doctors. The BMA's secretary, Dr Mac Armstrong, has participated in a promotional video, endorsing the scheme's aim of steering accident victims towards the most appropriate advice.

The publicity for launching the scheme, and the cost of the line's freephone number, is being paid for with subscription fees from participating firms, whose numbers are expected to increase as the scheme gains momentum. This will depend to a great extent on promotional efforts by firms at local level.

In Suffolk, for instance, solicitors have negotiated a deal in which the Accident Line number is printed on the back of hospital appointment cards. And in the North West, nine firms are advertising collectively in newspapers and on radio.

Phillip Sycamore, the chairman of the Law Society's civil litigation committee, is responsible for overseeing Accident Line. He believes the service can change the public perception of solicitors. Top of the list of reasons why so few people take advice on claiming compensation following accidents are costs and fear of solicitors' offices, he says.

'As a profession, we have to make ourselves more approachable, not least in the way we present our offices,' he says. 'If people have never had any contact with solicitors, the whole process is daunting anyway.'

He acknowledges that people worry about cost. 'I hope solicitors will use the initial free interview to take a diagnostic approach to the client's problem, as well as discussing funding.'

This could be provided by legal aid, legal expenses insurance or in the not-too-distant future, conditional fees. With them will come 'after the event' insurance to cover the other side's costs. The Law Society is 'all but there' in negotiating a deal for such insurance, which will be 'attractive but affordable,' says Mr Sycamore.

'The reality is that the vast majority of personal injury cases go forward and are successful, largely at no cost to the litigant because their costs are paid by the insurers,' he says. 'Solicitors ought to be getting this over at the first interview.'

Mr Sycamore discounts any element in the scheme of pandering to greed. 'The prime thing is increasing public awareness,' he says. 'A lot of people, whether through ignorance or fear, are not pursuing claims, and both they and their families are suffering unnecessarily. They may be going back to work sooner than their health allows because of financial pressures.'

In answer to criticism that points to an increase in litigation leading to increased insurance premiums, Mr Sycamore says that if this is the long-term effect of increased awareness, it may ultimately lead to better standards in society. 'If insurers have to pay out more, they are more likely to say 'before we insure you, you must increase safety standards in your factory',' he adds.

Accident Line is not the old scheme under a new name. 'First, the solicitors involved must belong to the personal injury panel. Secondly, ALAS] was left very much to individual firms to organise themselves. Accident Line is organised nationally, with a national telephone line.'

The line was inundated with calls over its first weekend of operation. According to its organisers, more than 1,600 inquiries were received on day one, and extra staff had to be drafted in.

The Accident Line freephone number is 0500 19 29 39

(Photograph omitted)