A judge has found a law firm in breach of duty after it assessed a client’s case for compensation without a face-to-face meeting and misjudged the extent of their case.
Raleys Solicitors had secured a settlement of £11,141 for Andrew Proctor, 53, in general damages and loss of future earnings after he developed vibration white finger during a 19-year career as a miner.
But the settlement failed to take account of a claim for activities Proctor could no longer carry out such as gardening, car repairs and DIY, none of which was picked up during an exchange of three letters between the client and his firm.
In a judgment earlier this month at Leeds County Court (pictured), His Honour Judge Gosnell said it was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ that a client such as the claimant might not fully understand how the system operated and what claims he was actually entitled to make.
Raleys argued it was important not to encourage fraudulent or unjustified claims and it was for the solicitor to ask an open question and investigate if the client indicated he had a potential services claim.
But Judge Gosnell said in his view it was ‘not too much to ask’ that the solicitor directly consult with the client to advise him in layman’s terms what a services claim was and whether there were grounds for it.
The judge said: ‘The system set up by the defendants involving as it did, the extensive use of questionnaires and standardised letters with very little personal contact with the client enabled them to deal with a very high number of claims at limited cost.
‘The disadvantage however of such a system is that it is heavily reliant on the client carefully reading all the correspondence and filling the questionnaires in accurately.’
This aspect of the judgment will be closely watched by firms across the personal injury market, many of who have responded to fee cuts and the Jackson reforms by creating automated systems to process claims.
Judge Gosnell said that a solicitor takes client instructions in a three-stage process.
First, the solicitor must obtain information from the client about the nature of the claim and the facts which surround it. Second, once the solicitor has all the relevant information he or she can then give the client advice. The third stage is when the client tells the solicitor what action he or she would like him to take on the basis of the advice he has received.
He added: ‘In this case the information was contained in the questionnaire, the advice was in the initial letters and the instructions were by tick-box form.’
The judge in this case awarded Proctor £5,539, half of the sum he would have been entitled to if the services claim had been made, on the basis that his statistical chances of success would have been 50%.
The case was the second time a vibration white finger victim has claimed a further amount on the basis of a services claim being missed in the original settlement.
Robert Godfrey, a partner with Lancashire law firm Mellor Hargreaves, which won the case, said there are potentially thousands of miners who were not treated fairly when they initially claimed damages for vibration white finger.
‘We are delighted with the extra compensation we have helped Andrew win but we are also aware that there are many more former miners still suffering from white finger who could be owed thousands of pounds in compensation due to their original solicitor’s negligence,' he said.
‘New claims could total many thousands of pounds for ex-miners with this disorder. We want to put this right and help ex-miners win the compensation they deserve.’