Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A law firm to keep away from

A senior solicitor with Keddies Lawyers charged three clients from the same family almost $600 to travel less than two kilometres between Redfern and the CBD for a conference.

Mohammed Tariq, who received head, neck and back injuries in a collision near his western Sydney home on the night of January 11 last year, was also separately billed $60 for a welcome letter from the firm after he decided to sue for compensation. His lawyer, Philip Scroope, who bills in 10, six-minute units at $490 an hour as one of the firm's accredited personal injury specialists, also charged $49 to read an electronic "thank you" e-card Mr Tariq had sent him. A further $49 was charged for an email Mr Scroope had sent colleagues seeking an Indonesian translator and $49 more went on the bill for the email advising the Indian-born Mr Tariq, an accredited interpreter in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi, of Mr Scroope's coming holiday.

Liability for Mr Tariq's injuries was admitted early in his 12-month involvement as a client of the state's largest firm specialising in personal injury cases. He had claimed against NRMA, the insurer of a car driven by a P-plate driver that collided with him. On February 21 this year, the day his case settled at a conference at Keddies's Civic Tower office in Goulburn Street, the firm charged more than $8000 for work on the cases of Mr Tariq, and the separate claims for nervous shock of his wife and daughter - who declined to be named.

Included in that amount were separate billings of $490 for a pre-conference meeting at the firm's Redfern Office, $98 each for Mr Scroope's 1.9-kilometre journey to the southern part of the CBD, $490 each for the conference at which all three cases were settled, another triple $98 charge for the trip back to Redfern and $245 charged to each for a post-conference meeting held with all three present.

Mr Tariq's wife and daughter - who did not attend the settlement conference - were also billed $98 each for a call Mr Tariq made to them from his own mobile phone during which they agreed to offers of $45,000 and $75,000 respectively, in settlement of their nervous shock claims.

The Tariqs have complained to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner about overcharging. They are determined to claw back some of the more than $117,000 charged in total for their legal costs and other expenses.

Keddies has been the subject of allegations from former clients, some of whom have received reimbursements totalling more than $500,000 after complaining formally about alleged overcharging. The firm has repeatedly denied allegations of overcharging, stating its confidence that all complaints before the legal regulator will be dismissed.

Since a Herald investigation into claims against the firm, published last month, revealed a group of more than 25 clients had made formal complaints over the past 18 months, some have been dismissed. During the past two weeks it is understood that more complaints have been lodged with the commission.

Mr Tariq, who told the Herald he was stressed and confused when settling his compensation claim on February 21, admits to outbursts of emotion, frequent anger and threats of violence as part of an ongoing accident-related psychiatric condition following his brain injury and his strong medication for mood stabilisation and pain relief. He has written to his state parliamentarian, Diane Beamer, the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos and the shadow attorney-general, Greg Smith, about his Keddies experience.

Letters of complaint were also sent last week to the NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, and the Law Society of NSW. Mr Tariq now intends to apply for a Supreme Court costs assessment of the three bills for which the Keddies professional costs alone totalled more than $100,000.

When the Herald asked to put some of Mr Tariq's claims about his family's bills to Mr Scroope, a spokesman for the firm said it would leave them to the legal regulator and costs assessor "to examine and pass judgment on with the benefit of all of the material that will be before them".

An "extremely angry and disappointed" Mr Tariq has known Mr Scroope for more than a decade and said he had a panic attack when, after compulsory payments were deducted from his $400,000 gross settlement, he found that legal costs and expenses were nearly $86,000 (reduced from more than $100,000). He agreed that they were within the range estimated in his signed costs agreement with the firm.

Keddies organised for him to take out a loan to cover his initial medical costs. He repaid the $13,445.22 owed on his loan from his settlement money, but Keddies deducted $1200 more for treatment expenses. Unable to work since the accident, Mr Tariq was left with just over $250,000 for treatment for the rest of his life. After protesting - shirtless - outside the Keddies Lawyers Redfern office in March, he received two refunds totalling $11,987.62. Half of this amount was described on his bill as a refund from the loan company.

His daughter, on whose behalf he had complained, was also reimbursed $4488.61 in addition to the $46,000 she received net after compulsory deductions, legal costs and medical and other expenses were taken out of her $75,000 settlement. Mr Tariq's wife paid more than $15,000 in legal costs and expenses from her $45,000 total settlement.

"I am not going to stop until justice is done," Mr Tariq said yesterday, vowing to continue his protests outside Keddies's offices in Redfern, Ashfield and Liverpool as well as their new Wollongong and Brisbane offices.


Beware green zealots

A fanatic, George Santayana famously said, is someone who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim. With July shaping up as climate change policy month, a good dose of fanaticism seems likely to come our way. Nowhere is the fanatic's touch more apparent than in the confused notion of an emissions reduction budget, the idea that there is a fixed quantum of emissions reduction we should achieve by a given date, with the result that if we reduce a bit less in one area, we will have to reduce by more elsewhere.

Reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions is not a goal in its own right; it is merely a way of trying to deal with the risks of potentially harmful climate change. How much we should devote to that goal depends on the costs and benefits involved. If the costs increase relative to the benefits, only the fanatic redoubles his efforts.

The fallacy involved is manifest in the debate about how trade exposed, emissions-intensive activities should be dealt with. It has become increasingly evident that if Australia, acting unilaterally, imposes a carbon tax on these activities, global emissions will not be reduced. Rather, they will simply shift to other countries, decreasing our welfare (as we have a comparative advantage in those activities) and welfare worldwide. As a result, without an international framework that would prevent emissions flight, putting a carbon tax on trade exposed, emissions-intensive activities serves no useful purpose.

Now, a rational person, faced with that fact, adjusts the target to reflect the greater cost of achieving it. If the target that would have been set in a world where emissions flight could not occur were to reduce emissions by, say, 20 per cent through a period of years, that person, faced with the reality of an emissions flight risk, would discount that target to some lower level.

In contrast the fanatic, acting as if the target had come from God, leaves the target unchanged and, if anything is conceded to the activities that could most readily move elsewhere, inflicts greater punishment on those that have the least scope to escape their clutches. This response is doubly perverse. To begin with, the economic cost of achieving any given emissions reduction target increases more than proportionately with the severity of the reduction being sought: doubling the target inflicts more than twice the cost. As a result, increasing the extent of the reduction sought from those activities that are least footloose makes the cost of any overall reduction all the greater. These added costs then are compounded by an increased distortion in resource allocation between the activities that are exempt and the now more heavily taxed ones that are not.

There is an additional, deeper reason the fanatic's response is perverse. The problem of emissions flight merely highlights the absence of an effective and comprehensive regime for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of such a regime, abatement in Australia, no matter how great, will have no direct impact on the risk of harmful climate change. The only reason for undertaking that abatement is the possibility that it will assist such a regime to come into place. However, whether abatement in Australia would have a "demonstration effect" internationally, and if so to what extent, is highly uncertain. Even if such an effect did exist, there is little reason to think the effect will be much greater if we pursue abatement at home with greater intensity.

As a result, a rational decision-maker would give the possibility of such an effect a low weight and one that justified an abatement effort that was, at most, modest.

This is all the more so as increasing the extent of present abatement reduces our ability to respond should an effective international regime not come into place. In that event, if those concerned about climate change are correct, we would have to invest in ways of living that are less vulnerable to unfavourable climatic conditions. Our capacity to undertake those investments without painful reductions in consumption depends on our wealth.

As a result, if there is a likelihood that harmful climate change will nonetheless occur, we should be responding not by reducing our incomes but by increasing them and accumulating precautionary savings. In that scenario, bearing greater abatement costs now will not reduce costs in the future but merely increase the future pain.

The desirability of focusing on raising our capacity to adjust by increasing incomes is made greater by the distribution of the costs and benefits of the various options.

At best, pursuing "demonstration effects" makes the world as a whole better off if it succeeds; but if it fails, its only consequence is to make Australians poorer.

In contrast, increasing our wealth so as to increase our capacity to innovate and adjust, should such adjustment be needed, seems highly likely to make Australians better off regardless of the ultimate outcome.

The case for abatement beyond a very modest level, consistent with a low carbon tax, therefore seems economically untenable. Moreover, anything that makes the marginal costs of abating now higher, or the community's willingness to bear those costs now lower, should induce us to reduce our overall abatement effort rather than sticking by some inherently arbitrary target.

Consequently, a heavy burden of proof should be placed on those who advocate ambitious fixed targets to be pursued with the ferocity of latter-day Savonarolas.

Reducing emissions is not an act in a morality play but a decision that has to be made by trading off benefits and sacrifices. Moreover, the community must be given a full opportunity to assess those benefits and sacrifices and decide whether they are worth bearing.

As a result, whatever recommendations are made by the Garnaut review or the Government's green paper must be backed by estimates of those recommendations' costs, and the modelling underpinning those estimates needs to be fully disclosed. If all we get is moralising waffle, the community will legitimately conclude that this particular emperor has no clothes. Should that occur, the Government will have no one to blame but itself when its proposals run into strong and sustained opposition.


Public hospitals slower to see patients

Public hospital emergency departments are seeing a smaller proportion of patients within the recommended time than they did eight years ago - and the federal Government has admitted that "much work lies ahead" to fix the system. More than 6.7 million people sought treatment at Australia's emergency departments in 2006-07 - the equivalent of one-third of the population - and 30 per cent of these patients were not seen within the minimum recommended times laid down by the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine.

The figures, contained in the latest annual State of Our Public Hospitals report released by the federal Government, have prompted a chorus of protests from health organisations who say it shows the system has been starved of funds, even though overall spending on hospitals hasnearly doubled over the past decade.

Releasing the report yesterday, federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon said it illustrated "11 years of Liberal neglect". She said all states and territories except NSW were seeing a smaller proportion of emergency patients punctually in 2006-07 than they were eight years previously, in 1998-99. Over the same time frame, the number of people presenting to emergency departments rose by 34 per cent, up from five million in 1998-99.

The report showed there were 4.7 million admissions to public hospitals in 2006-07. Ms Roxon said the latest report showed admissions were growing by about 3 per cent a year - more than double the rate of population growth - and hospitals were "under severe strain". "While it will take time to turn around a decade of neglect, the Rudd Government is determined to deliver dramatic improvements in healthcare," she said.

The proportion of elective surgery patients seen within recommended times in 2006-07 ranged from 68.6 per cent in the Northern Territory, and 67.6 per cent in Tasmania, to 85.9 per cent in NSW. Longest waits are for knee replacement (162-day median wait), a type of nasal surgery called septoplasty (113 days) and hip replacement (106 days).

Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the amount of commonwealth money provided for state hospitals rose from $6.1 billion to $9.2 billion. But over the same period, that money as a proportion of the total spending on state-run hospitals fell from 48.1 per cent to 42.7 per cent.

Yesterday's report also showed continuing increases in some states in the proportion of same-day procedures, and decreases in average lengths of stay. Both are techniques hospitals can use to cope with an ever-growing stream of patients needing treatment.

Australian Medical Association president Rosanna Capolingua said the report was "a wake-up call to the governments of Australia" and that doctors and regular patients "have known for a long time that our public hospitals are at breaking point".

Prue Power, executive director of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, called on the Government to increase its share of total hospital funding from its current level of 42 per cent. The annual indexation also needed to be raised from the "inadequate" current rate of 1.7per cent.


Modern kids happiest in history - report

They may be fatter, glummer and living under clouds of global terrorism and climate change, but children today are more emotionally stable than 20 years ago. Despite rising rates of childhood obesity and depression and more older, working and single mothers, there's no evidence Australian children have more problems than they did in the 1980s.

Parallel studies by the Australian Institute of Family Studies reveal that two decades ago, children were less sociable, less persistent and more intense than those today. Two studies comparing temperament and behavioural issues among toddlers and young primary schoolers, then and now, show children growing up with hip-hop and computer games in the new millennium are probably better socially adjusted than those raised watching Madonna on MTV and riding bikes around neighborhood streets unbothered by stranger danger.

The twin studies, of almost 2500 children from 1983-1990 and about 10,000 children since 2004, found many more two to three-year-olds had trouble falling asleep 20 years ago, and showed greater signs of aggression and destructiveness. And although behavioural problems among six to seven-year-olds were very low in both eras, significantly more kids of the '80s suffered from worries and fears as well as conduct problems such as restlessness, fidgeting, fighting and disobedience.

Children's school report cards revealed the biggest generational differences. Anecdotal evidence from experienced teachers suggested children behave worse at school now than they did 20 years ago. [The erosion of discipline is the main susppect there]


No comments: