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LONDON-Victims of workplace accidents could see compensation levels increase this year if the government takes steps to improve benefits, says the London-based Trades Union Congress.

However, such an increases could result in higher premiums for employers liability insurance bought by U.K. companies. U.K. employers must carry employers liability insurance to cover compensation for workplace injuries. The minimum amount that must be carried is 2 million ($3.1 million), though most employers are insured up to 10 million ($15.5 million). In 1994, more than 400 million ($626 million) in damages was awarded to people injured at U.K. workplaces.

The TUC report, released late last month, predicts the U.K. government this year will relax various constraints on compensation that have been imposed in recent years. Some of the changes are already being made as the government tries to be more "victim-friendly" before the next general election, says the report. The next general election must be held in April 1997 at the latest.

The TUC claims the changes are needed because the government in recent years has "mugged" workers who are due compensation for workplace injuries.

In 1992, regulations were altered so that claimants who had won damages from employers exceeding 2,500 ($3,786) but had received social security benefits in the meantime, had to repay the benefits from their compensation. This measure reduced some awards by more than 90%, according to the report.

Also, the TUC alleges that "unscrupulous insurers" have persuaded injury victims to settle early for amounts under the 2,500 threshold "and for far less than they deserve."

In 1993, the government required that personal injury claims for less than 1,000 ($1,479) be moved to small claims court. Unlike other courts, plaintiffs who win in small claims court cannot recover the cost of their litigation from defendants.

Most recently, in 1994 the government dismantled the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, a centrally managed fund that compensated victims of violent crime, including those who had been attacked in the course of their work duties. The fund has been replaced with a tariff system that does not take into account the victims' loss of earnings and was introduced without Parliamentary consultation.

A judicial review sought by the TUC and 10 trade unions resulted in the House of Lords-the highest court in England and Wales-ruling last April that the Home Secretary had acted unlawfully in replacing the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme without Parliamentary approval.

The Home Secretary has now introduced a bill-the Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill-that would reform the compensation plan and make a number of concessions to claimants, including the reintroduction of compensation for loss of earnings.

Also, the Access to Justice Report, published by an independent commission in June 1995, recommended that personal injury cases should not be heard in small claims court. This recommendation was accepted by the Lord Chancellor and will enable plaintiffs to seek legal costs as well as damages.

Although the TUC says that these measures alone are insufficient, the government's actions "hold out the prospect of further good news for victims in 1996."

The TUC wants substantially higher levels of compensation-though it has not committed itself to any figures-and a fund for victims whose employers are either uninsured-which is illegal-or are insolvent. "An industrywide insurance compensation fund would be the fairest and most effective way to protect workers who would otherwise go uncompensated," assesses the report.

Free copies of "Turning the Tide for Victims: The Prospects for Workplace Injury Victims in 1996" are available, call 011/44/171-636-4030.