Thursday, 9 August 2012

Post-Chicago Musings

Last week my first overseas blog appeared. It came all the way from Chicago, Illinois, where I was attending the American Association for Justice annual convention. This week’s blog again has an American flavour, as I reflect on lessons learnt during my stay at the Chicago Hilton, where the conference was held.

I’d like to add to the two general points I made last week (that wherever one finds oneself in the world, claimant lawyers are engaged in an adversarial battle with insurers, and that claimant lawyers here and in America seem to be up against a legislative drive to reduce or cap the costs they can recover). In a sense, what I am going to say is also a general observation, but nevertheless I think it’s an important one.

Put simply, I think that rather than knocking the American litigation landscape we should look at it objectively and ask if it has a thing or two to teach us. I think it does, for reasons I will explain.

The British tendency is to categorise American lawyers as ambulance chasers (or worse). Our press regularly skews coverage of American legal proceedings to paint a picture of a system in which pre-trial jury selection is bizarre, and where US lawyers habitually exaggerate or even invent claims. But while there is rarely ever smoke without fire – some claims about the excesses of American lawyers are undoubtedly true – if you scratch a little deeper there is much to be said in favour of the American way.

The main reason I say this is because the American system is underpinned by a belief that the client comes first. An American claimant who secures recompense for an injury is not condemned as being part of a ‘compensation culture’. Instead, it is accepted and understood that a claimant’s lawyer will do everything in his or her power to gain as much as is properly due for a client. The client’s needs come first, which means that no stone is left unturned in the preparation of a case. Yes, this dovetails with a financial incentive for the lawyer involved, but in America there is recognition that lawyers have businesses to run. That they might make a profit is not viewed as something wrong and unpalatable.

Contrast the way in which civil litigation has developed in Britain – and the way it is heading. Recent years have seen successive reforms which, put together, make it harder and harder for British solicitors to represent clients to the best of their ability. There is a sense, here, that lawyers who make a decent living are somehow ‘evil’, that they fuel the ‘compensation culture’ which is so hated by the government.  This also leads to a very worrying knock-on effect for clients potentially, in creating an environment in which early settlement, at a fraction of what a client could have obtained in damages, will be become difficult to resist. There is some statistical  evidence of this which has recently been presented to the Ministry of Justice by Professor Fenn.

The emphasis, here, is on getting rid of claims quickly, at low cost. In America, the focus is on getting the right result. Here, the beneficiaries of the system can be insurers; in the States, the client’s case is the main thing, and is never or at least rarely sacrificed..

Doubtless there are issues with the American personal injury system. As I say, the point I am making is a general one. Likewise, the way we do things here is not all bad. But my trip to America reminded me of the real role of the personal injury lawyer: to serve injured people. I think we would all do well to remember this rather than uncritically accept governmental  soundings off about the ‘compensation culture’.

Or, put another way, if you were the victim of a serious accident, through no fault of your own, would you rather obtain the maximum compensation to which you were entitled – or settle the case early so that the insurers didn’t have to make a hefty payout?