Cancer patients who have been exposed to deadly asbestos dust could be forced to spend as much as 25% of their compensation on legal fees. Every year, dozens of Derbyshire people die as a result of the incurable cancer mesothelioma, caused by asbestos.

The illness usually develops decades after working with asbestos and those who fall ill are entitled to financial compensation from their former employers. Now proposed changes to legal fees mean that up to 25% of compensation might have to be given to their solicitors. Joanne Gordon, co-ordinator of Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team, said she was “very disappointed and upset”.

She added: “These victims of asbestos already pay with their lives and now they may have to pay with compensation.” The proposal is part of the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders’ Bill.Since 1999, publicly-funded legal help, known as legal aid, has been available for all civil cases unless specifically excluded by law. Now ministers are proposing reforms to the system which they say would speed up proceedings and save £350 million a year.

The bill has now been discussed in the House of Commons following a series of amendments by the House of Lords. These included an amendment which would have protected mesothelioma patients from using compensation for legal fees.

But the amendment was overturned by the Commons by 292 votes to 256. If the bill is passed, solicitors will be left to decide whether to take a cut of compensation.
Mrs Gordon said: “If they don’t, then they won’t make a profit.

“That just won’t be possible for some.” Solicitor Chris Stansfield, of Nottingham legal firm Nelsons, represents many Derbyshire asbestos victims. He said solicitors would be likely to consider whether to take a cut of compensation on a “case-by-case basis”.

He added: “The bill will make the more risky cases – for example where there is little evidence of exposure to asbestos – less attractive to pursue and so deserving cases will be affected.” The bill will be reconsidered by the Lords and could be approved as soon as next Thursday.