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FOLLOW THAT CLAIM!

With insurance premiums set to soar, how much of your cash is being gambled in the courts? It used to be easy being a passenger. You simply climbed into the cab, gave your destination to the driver and then settled back for the in-drive entertainment. Sometimes it was the state of the nation, more often the state of the England soccer team, and more recently it's been Ken Livingstone's parentage, but mostly it was a chance to relax and let someone else do the driving.

Above all you knew - or thought you knew - that you were protected from anything the traffic had to throw at you. Unnoticed by almost everyone however, this happy state of affairs seems to have come to an end about three years ago, as I discovered the hard way. Whilst with a colleague, preparing to alight from a parked cab, set down in a cab rank in one of the UK's premier cities, I tentatively opened the offside door for a few seconds to judge the traffic flow, when another cab sped past and hit the half open door, doing a fair bit of damage. I gave my name as a witness and left the two drivers exchanging details.

A few days later I spoke to our driver's insurers confirming the driver's view; namely that I'd simply been preparing to alight in a designated cab rank and that no blame attached to me in any way. The insurance companies would settle up and the bodyshops would get a bit of overtime. And that I thought was the end of the matter. Around two years later I was to learn otherwise, when along with the morning post came a County Court claim for over 2000, from the driver of the vehicle that collided with the door, accusing me of negligence and naming me as the owner of the cab in which I was a passenger. I was also now known as The Defendant - an unsavoury title more usually associated with the sweaty looking guy in US courtroom dramas. Confident that a clerical error had occurred, I approached our local Citizens Advice, to seek the simplest legal course of action. I was told that my situation was not exactly comparable with tenants faced with evictions, ASBOs and battered wives etc. Obviously this was right but when this was followed by ' well, it's only a couple of grand, pay up now and get on with your life', I began to have serious doubts about the CAB. Only at the close of our meeting I was advised to write to the DVLA to prove I didn't own the cab in question. And to find myself a solicitor.

This is when I discovered that barely one solicitor in a hundred is prepared to act for a defendant in the Small Claims Court - as there is no real money in it even if you win. Hundreds of 'No Win No Fee' firms will back a claimant it seems, even on the flimsiest of evidence but once you become The Defendant you're pretty well on your own. Eventually I did track down someone who helped me file a defence in the nick of time; name that it wasn't my cab and never had been. Pretty obvious when you think about it but the actual legal forms are quite daunting. I posted them back to the court, signed for delivery. And again, that I thought innocently, was the end of the matter. Wrong again. Despite all my protestations, a fortnight or so later came word that a date had been set for the Court Hearing some two months into the future.

I now had to fill in an Allocation Form explaining in more detail why I believed the claim worth defending. I could also in my new pariah role as The Defendant request that the court hearing be moved to my nearest town - rather than schlep up to the issuing court in Yorkshire. At this point my legal advisor advised me that with her firm's fees charged out at anything up to 350 an hour, I could soon run up a fair old bill if I relied on their services to represent me in court. Besides, I was assured, the judges look more kindly on self representation, probably because they can have a good old laugh over the port and stilton as they regale the company with anecdotes over who has had to sit through the worst Rumpole impression of the day. In view of the bizarre wording of the Claimant's accusations against me, I was now advised to seek a Judicial Direction from the Court as to the legal basis of the claim, but having taken one look at the indecipherable forms, I deferred on paying 65 for the privilege of five minutes with M'Lud and had a long chat with the court clerks instead.

My particular bete noir turned out to have started as a bright idea from the claims recovery department of one of the UKs leading taxicab insurers. It was at this point I learned that any clown with a grievance can wander in off the street and in return for around eighty quid can slap a County Court claim on anyone they care to name. Unlike the criminal court there is no need for any prior evidence or a caution. So if you're away on holiday when one of these unexpected claims arrives and miss the very short response deadline it's hard luck. You're judged guilty by default and judgement goes against you. A second revelation was that there is no set procedure for the Small Claims Court; each and every judge can run the court exactly as he or she feels like on the day. More disturbingly, I also discovered that despite the fact that it wasn't my cab, the Claimant's solicitors had the right to alter the precise wording at any stage to achieve his insurers' desired end, and that I must therefore prepare to defend my actions as a passenger. My cab driver's solicitors now also refused any further co-operation with me, on the grounds that their client was now the subject of a separate court action and I began to get seriously worried. There were also rumours of a personal injury claim lurking somewhere in the background, a terrifying prospect for me as a private citizen with no relevant insurance cover. Because this had been another shock discovery.

Our Home Contents Insurance with its all embracing out-of-the-home cover against legal actions (BIG PRINT) contained a clause barring it from meeting any claims in which a motor vehicle is involved. (VERY SMALL PRINT). I began to devote serious time to my new interest, the UK negligency laws, bending the ears of everyone from cabbies and licensing authorities to crash investigators. I started to draft my defence statement, all too conscious of lapsing into Tony Hancock type parody and including the phrase ' ladies and gentlemen of the jury,' every three or four lines. Except that in this one judge town there wasn't going to be any jury. About five weeks before the court hearing I received a long missive from the court demanding that I assemble all the documents I would use in my defence and dispatch these to the Claimant and his solicitors, these to be in place two weeks before the hearing. After collating a mountain of photocopies I trotted off down to the Post Office. I didn't want to be accused of not sending the documents in on time or anyone denying that they'd arrived. The deadline came and went. I received nothing from my accusers and when I reported this to the court , I was told, yet again that although the request came from a judge, and I in my innocence had assumed it had legal force, it was actually for guidance only and could safely be ignored without jeopardising the claim. Again I protested, only to learn that a week or so before the document deadline, the Claimant's solicitors had gleefully written to the court and applied to have the hearing moved to allow me more time ! They assured the judge that I had been informed and was in full agreement. At this point the wig hit the fan.

The hearing was reinstated to the original date. After my long weeks of legal studies - probably enough for a GCSE in Negligency Law - I was as confident as I could be in my defence and after months of uncertainty anxious to get the whole thing finished. Then suddenly it was all over. Apparently on learning that his solicitors had been guilty of what we lawyers call 'vexatious behaviour' the Claimant finally pulled out - sending a fax of withdrawal to the court. The hearing was 'de-listed.' What lessons have I learned ? That the Small Claims Courts, originally set up to arbitrate between neighbours and small tradesmen, now encompasses disputes of anything up to 5000, and because of this has started to attract the sharks of the motor insurance trade. Using your premium money to punt speculative claims and open the door into much more profitable fields of litigation. Secondly I've resolved to get myself a more powerful magnifying glass to read insurers' small print.

And finally, when climbing out a cab, I now insist that the driver gets out and opens the door for me. And sorry chaps, but in this increasingly litigious age I'm advising everyone else to do the same.

Supplied by Dave Dixon, Hastings TN34

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