Posted by David Haynes, head of underwriting and marketing at Litigation Futures sponsor ARAG
A survey carried out by the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) in conjunction with the Law Society, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and Motor Accident Solicitors Society has confirmed that non-panel firms suffer detriment when legal expenses insurers exercise their right to appoint panel firms to deal with claims.
This right is available to insurers until it becomes necessary to issue proceedings, and where (for example, when defending employment claims) the insurer is exposed to paying civil compensation, unless there is a conflict of interest. The survey was completed by nearly 700 people, 48% of whom were employment lawyers.
It is of obvious concern to members of the ELA that 90% of respondents had experienced problems when conducting claims under LEI;
Only 14% of respondents said that it was viable for a solicitor to issue proceedings and run a tribunal case at an hourly rate of £100 plus VAT, which according to the survey is the rate commonly paid under LEI policies. This reduced to 8% for associates, 7% for senior associates and to only 4% for partners.
Some 52% of respondents stated that they had (frequently or always) lost instructions from a prospective client in favour of a panel firm, while 42% of respondents said that the LEI policy terms frequently or always limited the rate payable to non-panel solicitors.
There is no evidence from this survey that ELA’s concerns translate into consumer detriment and the survey found that actual complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) were rare, with firms being deterred from complaining because of alleged delays by the ombudsman in resolving complaints.
FOS data for the period April to December 2013 shows that 507 legal expenses insurance complaints were received, of which 40% were upheld in favour of the customer – around 270 complaints if we annualise the figures. Of these complaints we do not know how many are connected with freedom of choice but we suspect very few (if any), as in most cases disputes arise because of a disagreement over the operation of policy cover.
Our own position is that we adopt a flexible approach in negotiating suitable terms with non-panel firms where policyholders wish to exercise their right to choose their own solicitor; but the use of panel firms works well for our policyholders. In the main policyholders are happy to use the services of panel firms as they realise that the service standards that we demand of panel firms are beneficial and claimants remain fully protected from paying legal costs.
Policyholders can opt to pay the difference where a non-panel firm will not accept instructions at rates that we deem to be proportionate and reasonable given the nature of the claim.
We are confident (without conducting a survey!) that our panel firms would not report problems in conducting claims under our policies and the success rate of panel firms is significantly higher than non-panel firms.
Waiving our right to control the appointment of non-panel firms has a bearing on the fortunes of policyholders who make a claim. Moreover, a lack of capacity to control costs would also result in significant increases to legal expenses premiums across the board at a time when there is government support for legal expenses insurance for individuals and businesses as an affordable means by which to access justice.
What this survey makes clear is that the LEI market is not working effectively for non-panel firms because it does not deliver the rewards they seek. This is very different from a market that does not work effectively for consumers. We would question how the ELA has been able to come to the conclusion that the LEI market is not working well for consumers by conducting a survey which was not targeted at consumers but at its own members.
The ELA’s position seems somewhat delicate as it has exposed itself to debate about the true motive in conducting such a survey. Surely a survey which purports to be in the interest of consumers would not focus on the ELA’s own members?
The ELA is to publish the second part of the survey soon, which will include more detailed evidence of the problems experienced (by their members?) when conducting cases under LEI policies.