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Wednesday, 15 November, 2000, 11:14 GMT
Compensation culture: Who's to blame?
Accidents will happen, but increasingly someone has to pick up the tab. But are three-quarters of Britons wrong to support our growing "compensation culture"?
Bosses beware, the next time you forget to provide an employee with a reference it could land you with a lawsuit.
In the last financial year the number of disgruntled workers who resorted to legal actions jumped 32%. Employees started more than 164,000 actions in the year to 31 March, compared to 124,000 in the previous year.
In one example a woman picked up £195,000 after her employer "wrecked her job prospects" by refusing to supply a reference.
The startling leap in litigation has prompted a stiff response from the Confederation of British Industry. It says more should be done to discourage claims which have little chance of success but cost companies a fortune in legal fees.
Commentators say the sharp rise in tribunal hearings is evidence of a growing "compensation culture" in the UK.
According to research carried out last year for the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), compensation claims cost Britain £6.8bn in 1998. The public sector alone pays out £1.8bn a year.
The study said more than one in seven people in the UK who suffer an injury requiring medical treatment take legal advice. In America the comparable figure is stable at about one in six. Britain is on course for usurping that figure.
Some 78% of Britons questioned in a new Mori poll said taking an employer to court over a personal injury was "socially and morally" acceptable.
The introduction of no-win, no-fee contracts for lawyers, an increase in the amount of individual awards, and tougher liability and employment laws are helping to fuel the boom.
Inevitably, some cases have caused derision in the media, such as that of a woman who sued Durex for £120,000 after she became pregnant because of a faulty condom. The case was dismissed.
It's good news for lawyers, but Dr Frank Furedi, author of the CPS report, Courting Mistrust, believes there will be an ultimate toll on society.
"It's not the money I care about so much as the suspicion and mistrust this sort of behaviour creates in the workplace and outside," he told BBC News Online.
"Doctors no longer say 'if I were you I would do such and such'. Instead they give patients a list of options. You don't get the sort of advice you would like because it might rebound on them."
Health is one of the main areas affected by compensation culture, along with employment and personal injury.
British travel agents are said to have an annual £1m fighting fund to deal with personal injury cases filed by holidaymakers.
Among cases they have had to defend is that of Jean Gratton, who sued Airtours after a coconut dropped on to her chest while she was reclining under a palm tree in the Dominican Republic.
Ad ban lifted
Eventually, Mrs Gratton, who said the accident could have been fatal, received £1,700 in an out-of-court settlement.
Dr Furedi said the principal trigger for the rise in compensation cases was the lifting of laws banning solicitors from advertising.
The result is some solicitors have gone on the offensive. For example, council tenants in some parts of the country have been leafleted by firms offering to take up claims for repairs that have not been carried out.
Another change in the law, to allow class actions - cases pursued by more than one litigant - has also contributed to the boom, said Dr Furedi.
But Patrick Allen, vice president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, rejected claims of a compensation culture. People are simply claiming what is rightly theirs, he said.
"There has been no change in the law that allows frivolous claims. If someone has been injured - which must be proved in a personal injury case - as a result of someone else's fault, they are due compensation," he said.
But it's not just lawyers who are getting a slice of the action. A new breed of unregulated personal injury claims assessors is emerging, with a reputation for "ambulance chasing" - ruthlessly pursuing possible claims.
These unqualified assessors operate outside the courts, usually firing off letters on behalf of clients. But this means they will often only win a fraction of the damages that might be awarded by a judge.
A report by the Lord Chancellor's office has recommended the government set up an awareness programme to alert the public to their work.
Dr Furedi thinks the clamour for compensation is going to get "worse" before it gets "better". After health and employment, he said, the next battleground will be education.
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