Thirty compensation claims-harvesting websites have been shut down in the last few years, while another 15 were forced to change their content. This was done to dampen the market for personal injury cases.
However, the Government is making no commitment to specific legislation to tighten controls on the practice, saying that the issue is complex and often involves overseas online operators who use “notoriously evasive tactics”.
Claims-harvesting sites are targetted at people who believe they may have a compensation claim from an accident or incident and who are looking online for information.
Some are run by solicitor firms to draw in business and this is permissible, so long as they contain only factual information, do not offer inducements, and do not make outlandish claims as to outcomes.
Others are run by non-solicitors and try to entice people with offers of free advice, consultations, or assessments, and with ‘no win, no fee’ deals.
Any personal details gleaned are then offered for sale to solicitor firms and other service providers, who then approach the potential client directly.
Non-solicitors are barred by law from advertising legal services and solicitors are prohibited from taking, or seeking, referrals from such sites.
Information supplied to Fianna Fail’s finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, in reply to a series of parliamentary questions in recent days, shows that 12 solicitor-owned sites found in breach of the regulations have been removed since 2014.
A further 15, also owned by solicitors, were brought into compliance with the regulations, after amendment of their content. Another 16 that were not owned by solicitors were removed.
However, over the weekend, a brief online search revealed several sites linked to solicitor firms that use wording not in keeping with the regulations, plus a non-solicitor-run site that offers free online claim assessments by a panel of experts that includes solicitors.
In reply to Mr McGrath’s questions, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said that regulation of such advertising, currently the responsibility of the Law Society, would come under the remit of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) next year.
Mr Flanagan said, however, that the LSRA would be responsible only for the regulation of advertising by legal practitioners.
He said the Cost of Insurance Working Group had looked at the wider issue of claims harvesting.
“The specific regulation of claims harvesters, who use notoriously evasive tactics while operating online, both nationally and internationally, is a complex challenge, which remains for possible resolution as part of the wider regulation of the insurance sector,” he said.
The Law Society offers an advertising vetting service for solicitors to check that their ads comply with the regulations.