Claimant lawyers and insurers have struck an unprecedented pact to lay down their arms on civil disputes during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Gazette understands that talks were held last week between claimant firm Thompsons Solicitors and the Association of British Insurers about ways to work together in the coming weeks.
A protocol has now been drawn up which will include an agreement that all limitation dates in personal injury cases are frozen, with claimants undertaking to respond ‘constructively’ to defendant requests for an extension of time to serve a defence.
Leadership teams in firms and insurers will establish an email or telephone ‘hotline’ for opponents to report where their staff are failing to adhere to the arrangement, with decisions taken at the highest level on whether to take a more understanding approach.
The protocol will last for a minimum of four weeks, effective immediately, with a joint review in the final week to assess whether an extension is necessary.
Thompsons Solicitors’ head of policy, Tom Jones, said: 'We have all needed to innovate, because the normal rules governing the personal injury claims process have started to fray very fast. The threat to individual claimants and access to justice has become too great to ignore, and this protocol puts a practical framework in place.
'This protocol needs industry-wide support. Like coronavirus, the protocol doesn’t take sides but unlike coronavirus (COVID-19) it can help everyone – claimant solicitor or defendant insurer.'
The ABI has said it wants to find ways to work with the claimant sector amid the crisis. In a statement released on Tuesday, the organisation confirmed the protocol had come into force. James Dalton, director of general insurance policy for the ABI, said: 'During this very difficult period, insurers are working with others to continue to give claimants the help and support they need.'
A spokesperson for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers said it backed the protocol as a way of helping the system work for injured people. More than 10 claimant firms have signed up to the agreement so far.
Many lawyers have been vocal in calling for more guidance from the judiciary or Civil Procedure Rule Committee about taking a different approach to court orders and limitation periods. Most law firms and insurers have staff working remotely and in some cases are struggling to meet deadlines in time.
Meanwhile, reports have started to come in that civil litigation lawyers may be seeking to exploit the current crisis.
Former APIL president Matthew Stockwell said he was aware of one defendant firm putting a seven-day limit on accepting a so-called ‘time bomb’ offer that was deliberately set too low. Replies to his tweet suggested this was not an isolated case.
Another solicitor tweeted that solicitors on both sides had served pleadings and an offer by post last Friday in full expectation that opponents would be working from home on Monday.