2018
Wednesday September 19, 2018
Sunday, 04 March 2018 17:04

ACC claimant 'devastated' after signing over her payout to advocate

ACC claimant Natasha Howell says the government needs to protect the interests of ACC claimants and provide free advocacy services. ACC claimant Natasha Howell says the government needs to protect the interests of ACC claimants and provide free advocacy services. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

An ACC claimant who signed over every cent of her backdated payout to an advocate says the Government should provide free legal support services.

Christchurch woman Natasha Howell, 44, was awarded $84,797 in compensation in a settlement with ACC after her weekly payments were cancelled. Howell suffers from severe pain related to spinal surgeries.

She had signed a contract handing over any backdated compensation to an "accident compensation law specialist" in June 2017 to help her challenge ACC's decision to cancel her payments.

Natasha Howell has spent five years fighting for compensation from ACC. Photo: ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Howell says she did not understand the payment plan proposed in the contract. 

She was given two options, to pay $5000 to $6000 upfront, or "all and any back paid weekly compensation payable by the Corporation to [Howell] in addition to any costs of any nature".

Warren Forster says vulnerable people could be taken advantage of because there was no oversight or accountability of advocates. Photo: ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

The former pharmacy assistant, who is unable to return to work due to the pain, was unable to pay the upfront fee and chose the second option.

"At the time my mother was dying, I had all this stress and wasn't thinking straight," Howell said.

When Howell realised she would have to give all of the backdated compensation she was devastated.

"What gives him the right to take the whole lot?"

She complained to advocate Andrew Cadenhead​ it was unfair and he agreed to reduce his fee to 50 per cent of the payment.

Without legal representation, Howell said she would not have been able to challenge ACC at all. 

At a conciliation meeting on February 12, ACC agreed to pay Howell weekly compensation from the date of her injury on June 13 2012, reinstate her as a claimant and continue weekly payments.

Cadenhead declined to comment to media, but in an email to Howell he defended the payment of "all and any backdated compensation".

"There needs to be an advantage for me in the second option (because of the significant risk I am taking) otherwise I would only offer the first option, which you were not in a position to contemplate."

Cadenhead does not have a practising certificate with the New Zealand Law Society but is an enrolled barrister and solicitor. Not all ACC advocates have to be lawyers.

An estimated 30 to 40 advocates, who are not lawyers, represent ACC claimants at reviews each year.

The Government asked ACC to consider funding a free nationwide advocacy service 18 months ago.

A spokesman said ACC was "developing advice on the advocacy service recommendation, which will go to the Board for approval, hopefully in April".

Access Support Services advocate Tony Gibbons said clients were usually charged 18 per cent of any back dated payment after deductions such as tax. 

"I am surprised to hear any suggestion of a 100 per cent success fee being agreed to by anyone let alone it being offered in the first place." 

ACC barrister and researcher Warren Forster said vulnerable people could be taken advantage of because there was no oversight or accountability of advocates.  

"If they were lawyers you would go to the law society but for advocates there's nothing." 

Forster said there had been a government policy over decades to exclude lawyers from representing ACC claimants by setting costs too low. 

In a submission to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment consultation on increasing ACC review costs, Forster said the fees were based on "a lack of legalism" in disputes.

ACC had "reintroduced legalism" to reviews by adding complexity, making legal arguments and increasingly hiring lawyers, forcing claimants to find and pay for their own representation.

A cabinet paper with recommendations on increasing costs for ACC reviews was expected in early 2018.

Stuff

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