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Councils must take responsibility to make towns and cities safer and cut personal injury cases

It was certainly interesting to read comments from a Hull City Councillor recently relating to the £500,000 bill incurred by the authority over the past two years to compensate people who have suffered personal injuries.

The Councillor expressed dismay at the amount claims have been costing the council, stating that a ‘more robust defence’ will be made in cases in the future, with the authority aiming to save somewhere in the region of an extra £100,000.

It is certainly good to hear the authority is looking at ways to bring the cost to the taxpayer down, but perhaps the first area to examine and question should be exactly why this money has been paid out, and the cause of the injuries suffered.

Although the media article included various comments to ‘spurious claims’, the reality is that compensation is only ever paid out to complainants where there is proven legal liability for the injury suffered, or if the party at fault accepts the blame.

Hull City Council has looked to point the finger at a ‘blame culture’ – ironically missing the fact that it is their failings which have been to blame.

Quite simply, it has paid out £500,000 over the past two years because it has been found at fault – or admitted being at fault – for injuries suffered.

Such settlements compensate people for the pain and suffering caused, but also to provide them with the treatment required to get them back to full health. Settlements include lost earnings.

We see how crucial this support can be. The overwhelming majority of the working population in the private sector are paid only statutory sick pay when absent from work, so even a period of just a few weeks off work can lead to very serious financial difficulties.

Perhaps the question which should be asked in the corridors of The Guildhall is why the compensation bill paid out by Hull City Council is far higher than the East Riding, which presumably has a similar overall mileage of roads and pathways to manage and maintain over its vast area, compared to the concentrated area of Hull.

It would also be interesting to see the total cost of work required to bring public places up to the safety standards required, against the cost of settling cases when people are injured, as the simple fact is that the ball is firmly in Hull City Council’s court to maintain their roads and footpaths as the Highways Act requires them to do.

In short, if the legislation was complied with, then firstly accidents would occur far less frequently and secondly, “pavement” claims could not be successfully pursued.

It was also interesting to read comments on solicitors taking ‘a chunk’ of money from clients.

Let us be under no misapprehension here – the Conditional Fee (no win no fee) system is not a system invented or imposed by Lawyers. It is a system invented and imposed by successive Governments, of which the Hull City Council is a devolved part.

Government’s abolition of legal aid for the vast majority of civil claims more than a decade ago led to the invention and imposition, by Government, of the conditional fee system.

The deduction from damages is part and parcel of that system – a system that does not charge a client for any legal fees at all should their claim be unsuccessful, but does charge a percentage of damages where a claim is successful. That is what Government deemed to be fair.

As an analogy, the Council wouldn’t entertain an argument from its council tax payers that they should only pay for services they use, would it?

People pay a set amount – regardless of whether in their household they are using education or social services facilities – yet there are presumably many people out there who could legitimately run such an argument.

The council are entitled to charge an equal amount to various Band payers because they and the Government deem that to be the fair approach.

So, Government deemed it fair that a successful claimant should pay some limited and fixed contribution towards his or her legal costs, to balance the fact that an unsuccessful claimant might incur legal costs amounting to several thousand pounds, in which case they would pay their solicitors nothing at all.

Given the Council’s pledge to fight off claims more robustly over the next 12 months, legal support may well be needed more often for those who through no fault of their own suffer genuine injuries which impact on their lives.

The councillor in this case has been happy to shout out about a number of what we call ‘personal injury myths’. We can only repeat – claims succeed where there is evidence to show that the council has failed in its duties.  That is the reality of the situation.

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