Monday, May 15, 2006


Thousands of miners with chronic chest disease have been paid less than 100 pounds in compensation under a programme that earned their solicitors 20 times as much per case. Newly released details of the 7.5 billion pound scheme, the largest in the world, expose the way in which public money has benefited law firms far more generously than pitmen and their families.

One family, whose father died after spending almost half a century underground, were offered only 7.13 pounds. Yet the law firm that handled their claim has earned 41 million pounds.

In total 293,000 claimants have received money under the scheme, which was set up after the courts ordered British Coal to pay compensation to miners with respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust. New parliamentary figures show that more than half of them - 166,000 - have received below 2,000 pounds, less than the scheme allows in legal fees for each claim that is handled.

More than 58,000 miners were paid less than 1,000 pounds, of whom almost 4,000 banked a cheque for less than 100 pounds. Yet under the terms of an agreement signed in 1999 by the claimants' lawyers and the Department of Trade and Industry, the legal costs paid to a solicitor after each claim is settled - on average 2,125 pounds - are entirely unaffected by the size of the compensation award.

In a House of Lords written answer to Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, a former collier, the Government has disclosed that on average each settled claim - including the solicitors' fees - costs the DTI 3,790 pounds. That figure does not include the compensation paid to the miner. Two thirds of claimants - 194,000 people - have received less than it cost the Government to handle their claim.

Dealing with the claims of the 3,949 miners who each received less than 100 pounds cost the taxpayer 15.3 million, of which less than 400,000 went to the claimants. Thirteen law firms have been paid more than 10 million each for their work. Thompsons, a firm of solicitors with a close relationship to the National Union of Mineworkers, has received 83.7 million from the public purse, while Doncaster-based Beresfords, linked to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), has been paid 66.7 million.

Last year disclosures in The Times about the financial relationship between the UDM and a number of law firms (not including Thompsons) led to a criminal investigation, which is being headed by the Serious Fraud Office. Malcolm Wicks, who became the Energy Minister last year, is understood privately to have been appalled by the multimillion-pound profits that lawyers have been allowed to reap from the coal health scheme.

David Russell, of Towells, a law firm that has dealt with thousands of claims but has never deducted money from miners' awards, said that the new figures were highly embarrassing for lawyers and the Government. He said: "How can the DTI justify spending 15 million to deliver less than 100 each to 3,949 respiratory claimants? And how can we, the lawyers, justify picking up 2,100 pounds for representing a retired miner who ends up with less than 99 pounds in compensation?"
Lord Lofthouse, 81, who started working underground in 1939, on the day after his 14th birthday and stayed in the mining industry until 1978, has fought for years to win recognition for miners with bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory diseases. He said that he was disgusted to realise the extent of the fortunes that have been earned by some solicitors handling miners' claims. "They've made colossal amounts of money. Worse than that, some of them have been taking money off the miners' compensation on top of what the Government pays them," he said. "I'm outraged that they would do this kind of thing to sick and diseased mineworkers and their widows."

A DTI spokesperson said that the Government's priority was to "keep the compensation flowing to those miners and their families who haven't yet received their payments". "That is not to say that we accept this scheme is ideal," she said, adding that agreement had been reached for a minimum 500 pounds compensation. This proposal, under discussion for more than two years, has not been implemented.

Report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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