This may surprise you, but not all my correspondence is adoring fanmail. Indeed, on some occasions people tell me rather forcefully that I’m wrong, and often in the kind of language that gives our email filter system nightmares.
The majority of angry responses come from defendant firms who take issue with my apparently pro-claimant stance. How dare I say things about such an important client of theirs (insurers)? How can I claim to write on behalf of the entire profession when one side is portrayed so unfairly?
The criticism extends not just to me but to the Law Society as well. If you’ve travelled through any train station in recent weeks you’ll have seen the Society’s ‘don’t get mugged’ campaign, which instructs accident victims to shun the initial advances from insurance firms looking for a quick settlement and take legal advice instead.
Let me say first of all I have a great deal of time for defendant firms and their staff – some of the brightest minds and nicest people I’ve encountered in this job are from these practices. But whilst they obviously have commercial obligations to stick up for insurers, they’re starting to resemble turkeys not only asking for an early Christmas but defending the farmer as well.
Let’s put this simply: insurers are doing everything they can to render all solicitors – claimant and defendant – obsolete in personal injury. At every turn insurers are looking to resolve claims without the need to defend them at all. The claims portal was the first stage, reducing the process to a simple data entry.
After this month the portal will cover most PI claims up to £25,000, including some very complicated cases, and efforts are underway to introduce something similar, with fixed costs, for clinical negligence claims.
But they won’t stop there. The small-claims limit will almost certainly rise to £5,000 this autumn and plenty of insurers already see this as too low. Indeed, you only have to look at Axa’s ‘research’ of the sector released today - which coincidentally supports a range of measures that would benefit the insurance industry - as proof that this sector is enthused rather than satisfied by the government’s willingness to bend.
And this week, Direct Line announced it would create its own law firm with support and staff from Parabis. I was at the conference of the Association of British Insurers last week and put the question of the fate of defendant firms to several delegates.
A wry smile was the most common response. Defendant firms are collateral damage for an insurance industry hell-bent on permanently changing the nature of claims in this country. Whilst they lobby on behalf of crippling changes to the claimant sector, the defendant firms seem oblivious to the threats to themselves.
The defendant market has been brilliant in recent years at consolidating, cutting its cloth and surviving. It’s a lesson for the claimant side in responding to market challenges and the remaining firms are as efficient as they can be. Certainly the immediate future is more secure, but in the long term they’re just as endangered. Defendant firms are increasingly resembling the henchman of a film’s bad guy who stays with him through the entire plot, only to be pushed off a cliff when the loot is in sight.
Rather than oppose sections of the legal profession, they’d do well to side with them and buckle up for a fight that will affect everyone in the end.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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