Strype Injury Lawyers calls for reform of business practices across Ontario’s personal injury law bar

Strype calls for reform of injury lawyer’s business practices

If recent headlines are to be believed, personal injury law firms are doing a disservice to accident victims across Ontario.

Negative media commentary has cast a pall on the personal injury (PI) bar, while calling into question the ethics and business practices of several high-profile PI lawyers.

Investigations have scrutinized everything from the advertising practices of some notable firms, to the exchange of referral fees between lawyers. Even client retainers have come under scrutiny, the assertion being that confusing and convoluted documents are denying clients a complete understanding of their rights under the law. It should be noted, however, that some of these articles also misstate the law, particularly in regards to the issue of costs and the client.

While some of the reporting has been inaccurate, we can agree on this: The public doesn’t know where to turn for accurate advice. Some questionable practices among a handful of our peers have brought into question the integrity of our entire bar. These practices must be stopped or, at the very least, further regulated. The time has come to enact meaningful change to restore full public confidence in our bar.

We need better rules to ensure full compliance with, and clarification of, existing policies, while working to address many of the issues that have the potential to negatively impact the long-term prospects of our clients.

We should also note that those media reports, which include the alleged breach of legal and ethical standards, focus on just a handful of PI law firms and by no means reflect the highly reputable, lawful and upstanding business practices of the majority of PI lawyers across the province.

Nor do they adequately highlight the important role that PI law firms play in affording access to justice for individuals who have been injured—sometimes catastrophically—in accidents. These individuals typically face tragedy, losing everything. They need specialized legal advocacy, often through protracted litigation, to secure settlements and awards that adequately address their ongoing care.

As lawyers, we understand that we are providers of a vital public service that, when delivered well, can have a life-changing effect on injury victims’ long-term prospects for recovery and renewal. We can help catastrophic injury victims realize their new, post-accident lifestyle potential and help them enjoy productive lives, but only if they have faith in our services and trust in our ability to advocate on their behalf.

For the most part, the system is working. But there are areas of disrepair—even fracture—that need to be fixed. The question is: how?

Our firm is calling for immediate change in several key areas:

Retainers—We believe the time has come for client retainers to be standardized across firms. This simple step would ensure that every PI law firm in Ontario delivers contracts that are clear, consistent, concise (to a maximum of two pages) and uncomplicated—at least from the perspective of non-lawyers. This would help alleviate concerns that clients are signing documents they don’t full understand, while helping to mitigate the threat of overcharging. Basic verbiage for standardized agreements should include:

•    The percentage fee charged
•    How the fee changes, if at all, depending on the stage at which the litigation resolves (e.g., does it settle early, or does it go right through trial)
•    An outline and definition of costs, and how they are calculated—as well as who pays these costs
•    An outline of applicable disbursements, and how they are charged
•    What interest rate accrues on disbursements
•    Clients’ duties (e.g., to be honest and forthcoming with their lawyer about facts relevant to the case)
•    Lawyer’s duties (to be up to date on legal changes and to provide the best advice.)

Referral fees—While referral fees are a useful tool to improve legal service by providing an incentive for lawyers to pass files along to other lawyers with more expertise in an area (e.g., an employment lawyer referring an injured client to a PI lawyer), the practice must be reviewed between PI law firms.

If your firm advertises for PI work, then you must be able to deliver that work, and not refer it out. That way, the firms that do play by the rules will be able to compete on a more level playing field, while clients can rest assured their case will be managed by the firm with which they initially engage, not referred to a stranger without the client’s consent.

In addition, steps should be taken to address the potentially more damaging issue of lawyers paying referral fees to hospital employees such as social workers in order to obtain the most serious personal injury files, particularly while patients are still receiving emergency care. This practice is already against the rules, both on the lawyer’s side and the hospital side, but requires proper enforcement due to the fact that the risk of penalty generally does not outweigh the potential profit that can be obtained from these sorts of files.

Advertising—Virtually anyone who has watched television, ridden a bus or surfed online has been exposed to advertising by PI law firms, particularly larger firms operating across the Greater Toronto Area. While advertising is not an immediate cause for concern, we believe the advertising practices employed by some firms are having a negative impact not only on the integrity of the PI bar, but on the public’s confidence in PI lawyers.

While some may regard these recommendations as bold, perhaps even superfluous, we believe they will have an immediate positive impact on the wellbeing of accident victims and their families, while also helping to create a more equitable marketplace and boosting the collective credibility of PI lawyers across the province.

Complacency on these matters is no longer an option. The time for change is now.

Strype Injury Law

MEDIA

For more information or to book an interview with Strype Injury Lawyers principal Jeffrey Strype, C.S., contact:

CHRIS ATCHISON
Shockwave Strategic Communications
PHONE 416-616-8968
E-MAIL chris@shockwavesc.com