Compensation claims against local authorities
Since 31 July 2013 both public liability and employer liability personal injury claims with values of up to £25,000 must be submitted via an internet portal. The idea is that where liability is not in dispute these claims can be dealt with quickly and efficiently with fixed costs to be paid to the claimant’s solicitors at the conclusion.
However, in practice it is often the case, in particular with public liability claims, that liability is denied by the local authority and the case falls outside of the portal. Claimant solicitors are then left to issue proceedings to obtain an admission of liability.
This seems to be very familiar territory, because before 31 July 2013, it often took a very lengthy period to bring a claim to a successful conclusion after liability was denied by a local authority. I have had numerous recent cases against local authorities, where settlement was reached only after court proceedings had been issued and the matter was nearing trial. In fact, on one occasion, the local authority only made an offer 2 days before trial, which was not accepted and the trial went ahead (and my client was successful).
Recently, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, suggested that ‘claims for often trivial or minor incidents risk having a detrimental impact on road repairs and education budgets’.
It is obvious that if local authorities take an unreasonable approach by denying liability where this should clearly be admitted, they will continue to face larger bills for claimants’ legal fees which will have detrimental effects on their budgets. Perhaps local authorities take this approach because they believe there are a large number of spurious claims, but it would appear to be far more reasonable for them to accept responsibility in meritorious cases and make sensible offers, rather than raking up large legal fees which often outweigh the level of compensation claimed. This way they could ensure the necessary funds are available to improve roads and local schools.
Councillor Peter Fleming, chairman of the LGA’s Improvement Board, has apparently said that: ‘The extra burden of spurious compensation claims poses a real threat to councils’ ability to protect the services people value most. Public safety is a priority for local authorities who take seriously their responsibility to avoid these types of claims occurring in the first place by ensuring people do not come to any harm.’
Whilst there may be some spurious claimants and solicitors willing to take these types of claims on, it cannot be said that the majority of claims against the local authorities are spurious. This means that for the majority of cases there has been an injury as a result of the council’s negligence or failure to comply with their statutory duties. In those cases where the council simply refuse to consider settlement, it is the public and the tax payers who are losing out as money is diverted to cover legal fees rather than improve roads and schools.
It is hoped that local authorities will seriously consider the cost advantages for their budgets of properly investigating claims at the outset and promptly admitting liability when appropriate, to avoid paying out unnecessary legal costs.