In pursuit of justice - not ambulances

Justice scales

Every year, thousands of Scots are involved in accidents. In many cases – collisions on the road, incidents at work – someone else is responsible. If this is the case, then the victims are probably due monetary compensation. This isn’t meant as a windfall, but to recognise their pain and suffering, fill the financial void caused by loss of work and pension, and pay for that person’s care needs – sometimes for life.

image of ambulance in Scotsman article about In Pursuit of Justice Not Ambulances

Obtaining fair compensation is rarely easy. Insurance companies representing those who are culpable sometimes offer derisory amounts, aware that victims don’t have the resources to pursue a claim through the courts. This amounts to a denial of access to justice. If those who suffer injury through the negligence of others don’t receive proper compensation, there is a strong argument that the system has failed.

There is, though, a way round this problem. Scottish legal firms can provide accident victims with the chance to pursue their claims through to a satisfactory conclusion by offering to carry out the work for them on a “no-win-no-fee” basis, a phrase which conjures up images of ambulance chasers. Unfortunately, no-win-no-fee isn’t always what it seems. Lawyers may settle before proceeding to court, which can compromise the potential financial settlement, or they may agree to absorb their own legal fees but ask the client to pay the cost of expert   witness reports and the other side’s costs if the case is unsuccessful – something which can rack up thousands, of pounds.

Digby Brown, Scotland’s largest specialist personal injury practice, adopts a different approach. It provides full support for all legal costs and expenses involved in a claim, and will take it right through to court if necessary. Until and unless it is successful, the client does not pay a penny.

Fraser Oliver, partner and executive board member, explains that his firm provides a no-win-no-fee solution in a way which is more attractive to the claimant. “We operate our own arm’s-length funding company called Compensate.

“If we consider that the case has merit, then Compensate will then take out and pay for an after-the-event insurance policy, which means that if the claim is ultimately unsuccessful, the client bears no financial risk whatsoever.

“It also means they don’t have to fund any outlays. When you consider that cases can involve reports from a number of different experts including medical experts, engineers, employment specialists, actuaries and so on, it can get very costly. Even obtaining a full police report in connection with a civil action can cost more than £100.”

By showing the insurance company that they have built a strong case  on behalf of their client, and that they are prepared to take it to court if necessary, Digby Brown’s negotiating power is hugely increased. Oliver continues: “We record what insurance companies are prepared to initially offer and what the eventual settlement we achieve is. The average is more than three times the original amount, and sometimes it can be a lot more than that.

“For instance, we had one case where someone involved in a road traffic accident was initially offered £1,400. The insurers of the driver responsible for the accident told the client he did not need a lawyer. They arranged for him to undergo a medical they arranged. They told him £1,400 was what his case was worth although he was suffering ongoing symptoms. He then came to us. We eventually settled for £7,500.” More than 90 per cent of these types of cases are agreed without a court hearing.

By providing a distinct and attractive business model in a highly competitive marketplace, Digby Brown is bucking the trend. It has doubled in size in the last five years and now employs 175 staff across five Scottish locations – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glenrothes and Inverness.

Specialist teams have huge experience of individual niche sectors such as catastrophic brain and spinal injury, industrial disease, road traffic accidents, high-value clinical  negligence, foreign travel, motorcycle accidents and dental work. The company’s qualified solicitors handle claims from start to finish and are often able to arrange benefits such as early medical treatment including physiotherapy and other forms of rehabilitation.

“We believe it’s the skills we can offer which set us apart from the competition,” Oliver says. “We’ve reduced the number of cases individual members of our staff handle, so they have more time to work on each one.”

In England, where the rules for personal injury claims are very different, large numbers of claims firms have set up and often aggressively advertise their services on daytime television. This has created an aura of tastelessness and opportunism across the sector, but it is different in Scotland: Digby Brown is a respected mainstream legal firm, and has the prestige of being Band 1-rated in its niche sector by both Chambers and the Legal 500.

Oliver adds: “We don’t deal with companies who send texts to people. That’s not the way we work. In fact our business is built on four stated core values of professionalism, respect, integrity and compassion.

“What we do is put our clients on a level footing with the insurance companies – an equality of arms, if you like. Insurance companies have vast resources and will look to try and dictate settlement terms if they can.

“By putting claimants on an equal footing, we are helping them to obtain real access to justice and to win an award which is fair and appropriate and in line with what the courts would award them.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Monday 12th December by Andrew Collier