How do you choose the right law firm?

I wasn’t sure if this is the right section to post in, but here goes anyway, please feel free to move it if I have put it in the wrong place.

I get asked this question all the time, so I thought as the new boy, despite the fact that some may have seen this posted on other forums :wink: it may be of use to try and explain how to ensure that you have the right legal representation in the event of being involved in a crash. If someone has a query they would like to discuss away from a public forum, then you are welcome to PM me.

It is an unfortunate fact of life, but as members of the human race, every time we step out of our front door, whether it be as a driver/rider, as a pedestrian or at work, we run the risk of being injured quite often through no fault of our own. Accidents will happen. It has been known for someone simply sitting at a desk looking at a computer screen all day can cause injury.

But it is knowing who to turn to after an accident has occurred that seems to cause people much anxiety. If you think that someone or some organisation may be at fault how can you bring a claim?

Many people are deterred from going to a solicitor after an accident because they imagine that he/she will try and tie them up in legal jargon, official red tape and charge them a fortune for the privilege. Times are changing though and many solicitors are now living in the 21st rather than the 19th century. The way the public are treated now is very different to a few years ago.

This article will attempt to explain why a solicitor is the best person to turn to for help after an accident (and who is not the best), what information the solicitor will need to be able to assist you, and the procedure that will be used to try and win you proper compensation.

Who not to use? Over the past few years a number of “accident management” firms have sprung up around the country. So many in fact that you start to lose track of them all. They all sound the same. And they promise big results for an injured person and spend large sums on TV and other advertising. These are not cheap and have to be recovered somewhere. Guess who from?

The problem with these types of organisation is that in the main they are nothing more than unqualified agents working for an insurance commission or a referral fee. It is not unknown for an injured person to be referred by these organisations to a solicitor who has little or inadequate experience in the field of personal injury. Then come the scams. Some accident management firms have been known to advise the hiring of a replacement vehicle after a road traffic accident only for the claimant to be confronted with a massive debt at the conclusion of the case because the hire vehicle charges were forgotten in the final claim, or couldn’t be recovered from the insurance company. And surprise surprise, they get a kick back from the company concerned. At your expense.

These problems have been particularly noticeable in motorcycle accident cases. For some reason they always seem to get the worst deal!

A solicitor is the best person to turn to, but who to choose? Not all solicitors are the same. How do you know?

Make sure that the solicitor you choose is a member of the Law Society’s specialist personal injury panel. Ask them! This panel is carefully vetted by the Law Society for the appropriate experience. If they are not on it, don’t use them. They should at the very least belong to The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers or the College of Personal Injury Law, ideally they may also be members of the Spinal Injuries Association specialist panel (important if you have suffered injury to the spine), the Motor Accident Solicitors Society or the Headway Specialist Panel (sadly bikers for example risk head injury more than motorists) to name but a few. So don’t be afraid to ask what associations the solicitors belong to, what was their biggest award for a similar claim, what experience do they have in the area you wish to claim. If they are genuine, they will be happy to supply this information.

Many solicitors work on a “no win, no fee” basis so should you be unfortunate enough to lose your case, then there will be no hidden surprises waiting round the corner. If they are not, don’t use them. They should be putting their money where their mouth is and not get paid if they don’t win your case for you.

Watch deductions if you do win. Some might be unavoidable (the law is being clarified about insurance for example at the present time), but others come from taking out excessive insurance or loans that you don’t need. These are often schemes to get money out of you that you don’t need to spend. Look at the huge problems the clients of one claims management company had a few years ago which was highlighted in BBC’s Watchdog programme and by The Sun (“Shames Direct”).

Some fences have been mended but for my money these organisations are best avoided.

Most importantly, a solicitor can advise you as to whether your claim is worth pursuing in the first place. What is the point of spending hours on a claim, waiting for months to sort it out only to get a pittance at the end of the day? Or where the only winner is the claims management company?

So having decided to appoint a specialist solicitor to fight your case, what can you do to ease the claims process?

Well firstly, by providing as much information as you can, such as times, dates, exact locations and the details of any independent witnesses.

Photographs are always a good source of information even some weeks after the event, as they can give your solicitor a good understanding of the location and its geography. If you are photographing a rut or hole in the road (or similar), give a scale by putting a 12” ruler alongside.

Write down as much detail as you can as soon after the event as possible. As time passes, the memory tends to fade, and some important factors may be forgotten.

If you are unable to write yourself (in hospital maybe) then ask someone to write it down for you. The solicitor should come out and see you in hospital so this should not be a problem.

Remember that it is far better to have too much information, than not enough.

Keep a copy of all relevant documents, letters or instructions you may have received. Paperwork can often throw up extra information that may be beneficial.

Pass on all correspondence from other parties, for example insurance company letters, letters from the Police or from the third party. Do not enter into correspondence yourself as you may say something which can be later used against you.

Keep a record of any expenditure you may incur. Telephone calls, travelling costs, postage, repair estimates and any other out of pocket expenses are all claimable. The better the record, the less likely the claim will be disputed.

If the police have been involved, for example at the scene of a Road Traffic Accident, then make a note of their name, number and station and if possible a contact number. Most attending policemen will be sympathetic.

Keep all your previous payslips. If you have been off work for some time as a result of your injuries, then you will need to prove loss of earnings, and your payslips will do this for you.

Be patient. Some claims can take years to settle if there is serious injury involved. On the other hand if you have made as full a recovery as you are going to, the delay should not be significant, although 1 year as a minimum from the date the claim procedure commences is not unreasonable. Some solicitors are more efficient than others in this area. Try to get a recommendation as this is usually the best way to find out.

So how will your solicitor start going about making the claim for you?

Well there are two different ways. One is that you complete a simple questionnaire about the accident and the subsequent injuries. This document will then be assessed by your solicitor who will make a decision as to whether the claim is worth pursuing. The other way is for the solicitor to conduct a personal interview or consultation (make sure there is no charge) where he/she will ask you all the relevant questions and then make a decision based on the answers provided. If you are local to the solicitor, a meeting at the solicitors office is a good idea as you can assess whether you can put your trust both in the firm (what are the offices like for example?) and the individual. Of course if you are housebound you will not be able to do this but your solicitor should come to you in these circumstances.

One of the first things that will be looked at is how long ago the accident happened. If it was over 3 years ago there could be a problem as generally you must bring a claim within this period. This is called the statute of limitation and proceedings must be commenced within 3 years from date of injury or date of knowledge whichever is the sooner. This does not apply to children or people who are incapable of managing their own affairs, for example people suffering from a brain injury.

Once it has been decided to pursue the claim, the solicitor will write to the third party holding them responsible for the accident. In most cases this letter will be passed on to their insurance company who will then act on behalf of the person being held liable. Any future correspondence will then be conducted between the solicitor and the insurance company or the insurance companies appointed solicitor. You don’t get involved and are spared any hassle.

If an official such as a police officer has prepared a report, then the solicitor will pay a fee and a copy of the report will be obtained, but this will not be released until the file has been closed and the investigation completed which can take several months. Known independent witnesses will also be contacted and asked to make a statement. The most important issue is to find out what caused the accident. This is where the accident investigator comes in. Some solicitors firms have these (very useful!) people in house. Ask! Often they will be ex traffic police themselves so will speak the same language as the attending officers and will have a massive amount of first hand accident attendance and reconstruction experience.

You will need to be examined by a doctor so that the level of injury or disability can be assessed. This will generally only take place once your symptoms have settled.

After all the evidence has been gathered, your solicitor will then start to negotiate for an admission of liability and a settlement. In some cases where the facts cannot be disputed (although many insurance companies still try!) the question of liability is often admitted, but like all businesses, the insurance company will want to minimise the expense and will therefore fight tooth and nail to limit the amount they pay out. Where liability is contested, your solicitor will try and bring pressure to bear and resolve the matter. Unfortunately though, some cases (actually very few) end up in Court where a judge will decide who is liable, and will decide what the value of the injury is. This is where your solicitor can really earn his corn by preparing and presenting your claim in a knowledgeable, professional and efficient manner.

Some cases can take years to settle particularly where there have been serious injuries. If the case is settled too quickly then the level of compensation may not reflect potential medical problems that may occur later on in life. For example a broken bone which heals seemingly without complication as a young person, may lead to more serious problems like arthritis later on. Your solicitor should be able to advise you how long the matter will take to resolve. If there is going to be a delay but liability is admitted, the solicitor will obtain an “interim payment” for you to ensure that you are not financially disadvantaged pending settlement of the claim.

So should you be unfortunate enough to be injured as a result of any type of accident, whether it be at work, on the road or in any case where blame may be apportioned, then think of your specialist solicitor as the 5th emergency service. In a changing world they really are there to help.

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Cheers T.C - some great advice in there!!!