Compensation claims cost. Big time. They hit council services and they hit the people that pay for those services through their council tax. A few years back, a new type of claims company appeared – one that didn’t wait for clients to come to them.
They searched high and low for customers, advertising on TV and stopping people in the street. Claims against councils rocketed...
Every year, Greater Manchester’s ten local authorities receive 5,000
‘slips and trips’ claims and put aside about £15 million to pay for the compensation and legal costs.
Wigan Council gets some 500 claims a year and the total pay-out could run into millions of pounds if the council is found to be at fault. Contrary to popular belief, most of this will come not from an insurance firm but from the council tax – money that could be better spent on essential public services.
So what is being done about it? Council finance chief David Smith explains: “Firstly, we are making the streets safer for pedestrians to reduce the number of injuries and legitimate negligence claims. Secondly, we are working with insurers, legal advisors and the Audit Commission to combat the fraudulent ones.
“The savings are invested back into the highways budget, which could mean an extra £1million spent on highway improvements over the next five years.”
The growth in no-win no-fee law firms, encouraging people to sue councils, is one reason for the national explosion in negligence claims and the debate about ‘compensation culture’. But councils are also improving their inspection systems in line with a new national code of practice.
“There are over 650 miles of roads and pavements in the borough, used by over a third of a million people every day” says highways manager Elwyn Holt. “Keeping them all up to the new national standard is a monumental task. Novel solutions are needed.”
The council’s new approach to ensuring residents’ safety on the borough’s streets is typically 21st century.
Highway inspectors are now using the UK’s first fully computerised, paper-free safety inspection system to relay reports of pot-holes, cracked pavements or damaged kerbs back to base in an instant.
“The new system’s a winner,” says Elywn, “for local residents and for the council too. Problems are reported quickly and accurately, without the need for a time-consuming paper trail. It’s a real boost to productivity and public service.”
More inspections and faster repairs mean fewer opportunities for claims against the council for trips and slips. And those who do claim face increasingly rigorous tests as the council aims to beat fraud and protect council tax payers’ money.
Senior council auditor Martyn Kenyon says: “Claims from accident victims with genuine injuries will, quite rightly, be processed as quickly as possible.
“But anyone making exaggerated or fraudulent claims can expect a rough ride. We won’t be a cash-cow for the con-men.”
All compensation claims are subject to careful scrutiny by a former fraud investigator, with background checks to detect ‘serial slippers’ who trip all over the country and have a history of making claims. The council’s insurers carry out their own checks too.
Wigan Council is always prepared to go to court to defeat fraud and has successfully proved that witnesses are not always telling the truth.Of the claims made against the council for trips or slips in 2003/04, 332 claims (75%) have been rejected outright and to date only 47 claimants have proved that they deserve compensation.