Friday, 21 June 2013

Lawyers need to be clear, open and ethical

On Monday the Law Society launches a new campaign. It focuses on the value of instructing a solicitor to provide sensible and accurate legal advice for personal injuries. Members of the public will be directed to advice on how to pursue a claim and, via the Law Society's Find A Solicitor search, they will also be shown how to find details of personal injury solicitors near them.

I welcome this campaign, not least because it promises to take "a bold, humorous and memorable approach" to convey an important message. Exactly what that approach is remains to be seen, but sources tell me that this is a non-aggressive and well-judged campaign.

Justice, not profit

It's also a timely one. Misinformation about the mythical 'compensation culture' continues to run deep, colouring the public attitude to all lawyers but especially those in the personal injury sector. In fact, far from being unscrupulous ambulance chasers (another regrettable and unfounded media cliché), the majority of personal injury lawyers are ethical individuals who come into this area of the law because they want to help the individual against what are often large and faceless conglomerates. The motivation is securing justice, not personal profit.

This is seen in personal injury cases from road traffic accidents to complex clinical negligence claims. Clients seek legal advice because they have been injured, through no fault of their own; it is the solicitor's duty and privilege to serve them and their families.

Unfortunately, as reported by the ever excellent Legal Futures website, on the eve of the campaign a law firm has been reprimanded for a radio ad which encouraged accident victims to claim compensation "irrespective of injury".

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received a complaint regarding a radio ad by a firm called KL LLP, which trades as Secure Law. In the ad, listeners hear a woman telephoning a man, asking why he's late and if everything is OK. He replies: "Yeah fine, I just had a little bump in the car." He then says again that he is "fine" and asks for Secure Law's number.

I have not listened to the ad, but apparently the man repeats that he is "fine" for a third time, before a voice over states: "If you've been in an accident, make the second person you call Secure Law. They offer a no-win no-fee scheme, give you 100% of your claim and an upfront payment of up to £1,500."

An "irresponsible" radio ad

In its adjudication, the ASA said the firm argued that the ad "could not encourage someone to make a personal injury claim if they were not injured, because it would be censored by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and would in all probability be put out of business, if not convicted in a court of law". The firm also evidently made much of the fact that the word "injury" wasn't mentioned in the ad.

The ASA rejected KL LLP's arguments. Upholding the complaint, it found that the statement "If you've been in an accident, make the second person you call Secure Law" encouraged listeners involved in road traffic accidents to contact Secure Law to claim accident compensation. The ad failed to make clear the basis on which the man had any grounds to make a claim and, concluded the ASA, was "irresponsible" because "the implicit message encouraged listeners to make a claim irrespective of injury."

The Law Society’s personal injury ad campaign, which will run for six weeks, will make use of radio ads for the first time; it is also planning to release a YouTube video.

Meanwhile, the campaign brings into focus a lesson that I believe all of us who work in personal injury law would do well to take to heart. We must remember is that if we want the public to believe in us - and to realise that a toxic blend of governmental and insurer-driven spin is what drives the misinformation about personal injury law - we lawyers need to be transparent at all times. We do a great deal of fantastic work for injured people, but in our communications there shouldn't be any room for doubt. If only we could be clear, open and ethical at all times, we might find that the media stigma of b'lame and claim' becomes a relic from an unlamented past.