Guy Adams: The greed behind our compensation culture

It came as a shock to find friends and colleagues asking 'Will you sue?'

A teacher slips on a chip and wins £50,000; schoolchildren are forced to wear safety goggles to play conkers; someone tries to sue the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme for getting sore feet on a 50-mile trek. Welcome to the compensation culture, an occasionally bewildering fact of modern life.

A teacher slips on a chip and wins £50,000; schoolchildren are forced to wear safety goggles to play conkers; someone tries to sue the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme for getting sore feet on a 50-mile trek. Welcome to the compensation culture, an occasionally bewildering fact of modern life.

Last week, Tony Blair declared war on this institution, telling a newspaper he's been "very struck" to discover how the threat of unfair legal action now pervades society. "I was quite shocked to be told, by people running a nursery, that they were worried about letting the kids out into the playground when it was wet, in case one of them slipped and they ended up having a legal case against them," he said. "We have to look at a way of getting people protection on that."

As far as I can recall, the Prime Minister hasn't previously spoken on this issue. For a politician who takes a keen interest in the popular media, that's a strange omission. Mr Blair must have read the stories you couldn't make up. But it's taken an encounter with angry teachers to convince him there's a problem out there.

Like the PM, I recently had a brush with compensation culture, and can recall being "very struck" by two things. First, a metal bar; second, the fact that all accidents, however minor, are now an opportunity for greedy litigation. We are no longer prepared to shrug our shoulders at life's misfortunes: someone must always be to blame, and (as the lawyers say) where there's blame there can always be a claim.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go on a run through Wapping in east London. As a gesture towards healthy living, it backfired spectacularly: 20 minutes in, a workman emerged from an alley next to the local police station, carrying a scaffold pole on his shoulder. I ran straight into it. Result: blood on the pavement, six stitches, and a headache for several days.

The first thing I learned from this event is that good manners no longer matter if you are involved in an accident (or "incident," as the authorities like to call them). The priority is to avoid blame. I think that explains why the scaffolder didn't say sorry: an apology is no longer just a polite expression of regret - it can be considered an admission of liability.

My second lesson came from the reaction of the local copper, who took me into his station and called an ambulance. He seemed worried. The accident had happened as the workman was leaving police premises, and he was evidently concerned that (at a big push) the force might be "responsible" for my injury. A notebook was produced, and a statement taken. Another witness was interviewed. I was jokingly informed that the scaffolder was "bricking himself" about the whole affair.

Later that evening, my phone rang. It was an Inspector Connolly from Wapping nick. Having checked that I was OK, he read me the scaffold firm's name and address "in case I wished to pursue a civil claim." I was gobsmacked, since I had no such intention, but Inspector Connolly explained that under police guidelines it was standard procedure to pass such details on. If so, those guidelines must be worth a fortune to the blame industry.

That said, one expects authorities to adopt a legalistic attitude. But it came as a shock to find friends and colleagues doing exactly the same. Upon noticing the injury (it's developing into a fetching scar) two questions are universally asked: "How did it happen?" and "Will you sue?" It seems that legal action is expected of anyone involved in a minor accident. It has somehow become a matter of course.

This is in many ways the Government's fault. In 2000, it provoked a "big bang" in the compensation industry, by removing legal aid from personal injury claims, and widening the "no win no fee" regime to fill the gap. You can now sue for damages after almost any accident, with zero risk of a liability and the prospect of a financial windfall. Another guilty party is the "no win no fee" industry, which has become expert at dangling carrots in front of a greedy public. The internet site of one of Britain's biggest outfits tempts the greedy litigator with dozens of "case studies". I gather, for example, that a teenager called Claire won £1,500 for a six-centimetre scar on her leg. I now have a four-centimetre scar on my forehead - a potential goldmine.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with people who (through no fault of their own) suffer a life-altering injury being given some sort of recompense. But the current system isn't even any good at this: it provides a clunking, inefficient framework for compensation, and does no favours to anyone outside the legal profession: for every £100 awarded for damages in personal injury claims, lawyers trouser another £85.

It's also costing the Prime Minister a fortune, which may explain his sudden interest. Schools paid out £200m last year in compensation (equivalent to 8,000 new teachers). Hospitals paid £450m (22,000 new nurses).

Saddest of all, though, is the fact that daily life is now pervaded by a soulless, tit-for-tat mentality. When I returned to work on the day after my accident, a colleague remarked that I was displaying a very British stoicism. He was wrong: stoicism is no longer a British characteristic. We have become a nation of whingers.

g.adams@independent.co.uk

Comments