Watch out! There's a victim about

Once we had public services. Now They are out to get Us, so we sue them when things go wrong

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Sharon Wood of Hartlepool was followed for a month by a team of private detectives. She had no idea who was photographing and videoing her, but she became so afraid that she called in the police. Embarrassingly, it turned out to be gumshoes hired by her local authority's insurance company. They were investigating a personal injury claim, where a woman had tripped on the pavement and was suing the council for damages. They needed to know whether the woman really was as seriously incapacitated as she claimed. Unfortunately, the accident happened in 1991 and the woman concerned had moved house since then. They were following the wrong person.

Sharon Wood is outraged by the invasion of her privacy. It was frightening, she felt harassed and she feared her children were about to be kidnapped. I called her to ask what her response was to this intrusion. She is suing the local authority for compensation, of course. On the face of it, she has suffered at the hands of her local authority. But since it was an honest mistake, how aggrieved should she be? Some may think her story is a sinister example of the creeping invasion of snooping officialdom. But since we live in litigious times, with personal injury claims against local authorities having increased eight-fold in 10 years, there have to be checks on fraudulent or exaggerated claims where often only investigation will reveal the truth.

The boom in litigation is part of a deeper change in national attitudes. An atheistical society no longer accepts the concept of the Act of God. Now we have mastered nature, now we have rolled back the frontiers of life and death, we believe ourselves to be all-powerful. The flip-side of this coin is that some human somewhere is always responsible for everything that happens. There is no more bad luck: someone has to take the blame.

Everything now conspires to urge people to sue. Since May, solicitors have been allowed to operate a No Win No Fee service, taking up cases for a 25 per cent share of the proceeds. All the client has to put up front is pounds 85 in insurance to cover the other side's costs in the event of failure. It makes having a go a very good prospect. The Law Society offers an "accident line", so you can phone up for the name of the local expert in personal injury cases if you want to sue the greengrocer who left the banana skin on the pavement.

There are ambulance-chasing advertising posters up in many accident and emergency departments of hospitals, urging people who have had accidents to contact firms of solicitors. Local newspapers are packed with advertisements for solicitors touting for personal injury business. In Bleak House, Dickens wrote: "The one great principle of the English law is to make business of itself."

Since the introduction of No Win No Fee, there is a new breed of disreputable agent. They stop people in the street, often under the guise of opinion polling, and, among other questions, ask them whether they have had any kind of accident recently. When they have collected a list of the names and addresses of victims, they sell them to local law firms, which will contact these people and offer them free litigation. Go for it, everyone urges.

Of course, it does at last give people much fairer access to the law. Where once the risk of suing was so great, few but the rich dared try it; now everyone with a reasonable case has a chance. But the danger is that it changes every minor accident into a lottery win in the courts. It seems to me neither a moral attitude nor a healthy one for the individual. It certainly encourages dishonesty. One council discovered a whole family had made trip-and-slip claims over several years.

Private investigators, like the lawyers, are making a fortune out of this booming business. "The personal injury claim is an active market," says a spokesman for the Association of British Investigators. "It has doubled in the past 10 years." He adds, unctuously, "It may be the breaking down of certain standards in society that has made people less moral about trying to take money off insurance companies."

The Association of British Insurers, polling public honesty, found that nearly one in five people agrees with the proposition that: "The insurance companies can afford to pay, so it is worth having a go."

Law Society research suggests that about 4 per cent of people have an accident each year, and some 20 per cent of those take advice on compensation. Naturally, the lawyers think this is too few and that more people should be claiming more money. Are they right? I find it particularly repugnant that people are so eager to sue councils and health authorities for relatively minor matters, thus draining communal funds from the rest of society.

No one would suggest that gross cases of negligence and heinous injury do not require compensation, but the difficulty is drawing a line between these and more routine matters. Many litigants might be deflected if they could only get prompt explanations and decent apologies from officialdom. Doctors are notoriously slow to admit any error, but then they have become so afraid of litigation that they dare not apologise. Increasingly, good, hard-working doctors under stress find themselves sued for doing their best. What may have been an understandable error is turned into an expensive drain on NHS resources. Cases of medical negligence have leapt up; in 1985, legal insurance cost a GP (at today's prices) pounds 483. This year it costs pounds 1,495. It must be permissible to make routine errors in any job and yet we seem to have reached a point where anyone doing less well than the best may be subjected to legal challenge.

All this is a symptom of an idea of a society in which there is no risk and where no risk is ever acceptable. An individual may seek out risk for fun, in mountaineering, pot-holing or some other dangerous pursuit - but even then he expects a Sea King helicopter or a mountain rescue team to get him out of trouble.

Life is full of risks, but we have become increasingly bad at assessing and accepting them for what they are. Some 3,600 people a year die on the roads, but there is scarcely any political mileage in road safety. Yet whatever happens, however bizarre the circumstances, someone must always be to blame. So if a paving stone subsides and someone trips, it must be the council's fault. The Association of British Insurers dates a key change in our national attitude from the two great storms of 1987 and 1990: suddenly everyone knew someone who had cashed in.

However, it goes far deeper in the national psyche than mere opportunism. It is a part of the victim culture, where everyone wants his due with little consideration of what he owes. It is the Patients' Charter and the Citizen's Charter mentality, designed to sharpen up public services, which instead sent out a message that public service owes you. People do need rights and redress against inhuman and incompetent treatment, but in the public sector a brisk and effective complaints procedure would often be a better route than compensation.

There used to be a measure of pride and a sense of common ownership in the public services people used. Now people sue them.

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