Don’t forget legal debt when claiming recompense

PRICE of ‘winning’ a claim may be costly, says Richard Godden

PC World was part of a 16 year legal battle and cost nearly £250,000. Picture: Reuters

Anyone entering a shop with the intention of buying a personal computer does not expect to find it costing around a quarter of a million pounds. But that’s exactly what happened to Aberdeen resident, Richard Durkin, following a disagreement with PC World over a £1,500 credit agreement for a laptop. After a 16-year legal battle involving various courts, he was eventually awarded £8,000 by the highest in the land, the Supreme Court – but only after spending an estimated £250,000 in legal fees.

While Mr Durkin’s expenses, in relation to the cost of the product at the core of the dispute, might be an exception, they do send out a timely warning about the personal angst that can result when personal litigation for financial recompense is possibly taken over by emotion.

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It is one of the tenets of a civilised society that every member of the public has access to civil law to seek recompense for what they believe is a genuine grievance but claimants should always consider the risk of becoming mired in legal debt out of all proportion to the sum originally claimed.

It is for this reason that a solicitor who is doing his job properly will, initially, assess the “loss” involved and the sum claimed in recompense, after which an opinion will be given on the likely chance of success. One frequent caveat is that while the claimant has a good chance of “winning”, the resultant compensation (in relation to the sum claimed) might not make the claimant much better off financially – but drained emotionally.

Should the client still wish to take the claim forward, the solicitor will then propose a financial “ceiling” based either on interim expenses or the absolute limit the client is prepared to pay. Sometimes a solicitor’s letter will be enough to galvanise the other party into offering a settlement. If not, however, the legal costs will then start to escalate, hence the advisability of at least an interim ceiling as it gives the client the opportunity to take stock and consider if the claim is still worth taking further.

By following this procedure, it is unlikely that legal costs will spiral out of control. Fortunately for them, the majority of claimants agree to this strategy but for some others emotion takes over and they will instruct the solicitor to carry on when common sense says “Stop!”

Even when advised that a case has less than a 50 per cent chance of being won or that any “victory” will be pyrrhic, some people do insist on fighting on to the bitter end. A bill for £250,000 in respect of a credit agreement of no more than £1,500 may be a highly unusual outcome, but there are more frequent examples of people ending up several thousand pounds poorer after pursuing a claim whose value was, perhaps, a tenth of that amount.

Essentially, however, this outcome can be, if not avoided, at last minimised by emphasising two salient points to potential clients.

The first is that in any claim relating to faulty goods or services (for example, a car prone to breakdowns or a cancelled flight), the client should be made aware that the courts are not given to awarding big payouts merely for “nuisance” or “inconvenience”, no matter how professionally or socially debilitating that might have been for the claimant.

The second is that without corroborating evidence, claims for personal injury are notoriously difficult to prove or that, in some instances, accidents do happen for which blame cannot reasonably be pinned on any individual or group.

And it also goes without saying that some folks may need to be reminded that, hard as it is to accept, life sometimes just isn’t fair.

Just ask the man who, one day 16 years ago, popped into PC World to purchase a laptop and…

• Richard Godden is a partner with Blackadders solicitors, based in Edinburgh