As the Mail on Sunday starts its campaign to eradicate whiplash claims, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what they say. Lawyers are often referred to as ‘ambulance chasers’, and yet I have never seen a lawyer hanging about in a lay by waiting for the sirens. The only ambulance I have ever chased had my injured friend inside on her way to Accident and Emergency. However, creating impressions such as this in the media undoubtedly has the effect of undermining and ridiculing the public protection role of the lawyer. Lawyers have always stood up for the little guys and got them what is rightly theirs. For those injured they are a godsend.
If you read the papers, you would quickly presume that virtually every claim is fraudulent. Some will be as there are always people who will try to exploit a situation to their own advantage. But for every fraudulent claim there are probably 99 genuine claims. We would always encourage insurance companies to fight back claims they consider to be fraudulent – they have information that lawyers don’t currently have at their disposal, such as whether the claimant is a regular claimer, which can be a good indication of potential fraud. At the moment, insurance companies would rather just pay claims than fight them, and then complain that they’ve had to pay them. If anything is likely to encourage a growth in fraudulent personal injury claims this would be it. Insurance companies often don’t even want the sufferer to be seen by a doctor, despite it being an important part of the process designed to separate the genuine claimants from fraudsters. Insurance companies need to behave responsibly here. Doctors also have an important role to play. The doctor quoted in the Mail on Sunday didn’t agree with the prognosis he was asked to give, and so refused. This is just what should happen – medics are the experts who can advise lawyers whether victims are genuinely injured or not. He spoke about the tests and cross checks that he could apply to check that whiplash is genuine – doctors have the means and the ability to give a sensible prognosis and should not feel pressurised into saying just what people want, they should say what is right. The onus is on everyone to be honest here: lawyers, insurers, doctors and last, but not least, the victims. Lawyers who encourage fraudulent claims, or persuade a victim to exaggerate, will have their careers abruptly ended. We should all fight fraud.
Last week it was reported that one insurer, Admiral, makes £16m from referring accident victims details to lawyers. Clearly, the more details they refer, the more money they make. Many insurers act this way, in effect drumming up business whilst still complaining vehemently that too many claims are being bought. The Government hopes to cut this by banning referral fees, thus removing the financial incentive for insurance companies to pass on details of accident victims. However, there is a justified concern that a ban may drive premiums up even further as insurance companies lose a valuable source of income. £16m in one company alone is a big hole to fill.
Will there be fewer claims if a referral fee ban is implemented? Probably not on a major scale. We have a society in which people are now aware of their right to claim if they are injured. So how to cut premiums? An obvious way would be to cut spend on meerkats and opera singers. In 2010, 20 major insurers spent a mindblowing £184million on advertising. And we are all paying for it.