Insurers `tipped off' by 999 services `collude' with

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MEMBERS OF the emergency services are colluding with "cowboy" personal injury claims assessors who rip-off their clients by under-settling their compensation, a top-level committee revealed yesterday.

Policemen, ambulance drivers and hospital staff leak personal details of accident victims to non-legally qualified assessors, says the committee set up by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to investigate compensation malpractice. No evidence of payments had been found yet.

The chairman, Brian Blackwell, said this information was being used by claims assessors to make "cold-calls" to victims. He said in many cases, where legal action was taken, the claims assessors were selling their clients short. "Most of these we believe are cowboy operators," said Mr Blackwell. The committee appealed for people to reveal their own stories of how claims assessors operated. In one case a woman who suffered serious injuries in a car accident in which a friend died was twice cold-called by a claims assessor touting for business.

The committee said some claims assessors had walked into miners' clubrooms and persuaded them to give them their claim. Owen Tudor, the TUC representative on the committee, said there were hundreds of these cases. He said the average compensation payout for white-finger vibration and tuberculosis when a claims assessor was instructed was pounds 2,0000 less than paid under the government's scheme.

Typically the claims assessor will use a contingency fee arrangement which permits claims assessors' fees to be paid out of the damages or compensation. In one case, the victim received just pounds 197 from a compensation pay-out of pounds 2,500 in an employment tribunal settlement.

One serious concern for the committee, said Mr Blackwell, was that many people who had used a claims assessor did not know they were being ripped off. Some personal injury claimants, he added, were satisfied if they simply ended up with more money than when they started out on their action.

Mr Blackwell said the use of contingency fees was wrong in principle and the committee might recommend its abolition and proper regulation of claims assessors. Other scams used by the firms included offering victims of traffic accidents free care hire on the condition that they use a particular firm of claims assessors. Mr Blackwell said he still did not know the scale of the problem but there were two million accidents a year in which blame could attributed to another party. Of this only 350,000 end in claims being brought. "There is a potential market of one and half million people a year," said Mr Blackwell. Although most of the evidence of malpractice had been supplied by solicitors the committee had also found lawyers "who had not been following the rules".

Mr Blackwell recognised that law firms had a vested interest in closing out competition from the new claims assessor companies. He said his committee would also look at how solicitors served the public in this area. "The Lord Chancellor has said we must look at how the public interest is best served and that includes looking at solicitors." The committee will report to Lord Irvine before the end of the year.