Council leaders have hit out at “opportunistic” no-win, no-fee compensation claims, warning that they are “draining taxpayers' money from schools and important local services”.
The Local Government Association said the cost of compensation claims related to the condition of roads last year amounted to £31.6m, “once staff time for processing them had been factored in”.
This was equivalent to the cost of filling more than 600,000 potholes, at a time when councils are trying to tackle a £12bn backlog in road repairs.
The LGA also highlighted recent research suggesting that compensation claims related to incidents in schools amounted to £2.7m last year. The total cost to local authorities was £6m once claimants' “expensive” legal fees were added, “equivalent to the government funding allocation for the teaching of 1,300 pupils”.
The Association acknowledged that councils and schools would have insurance policies in place to cover payouts, but said the number and cost of claims would be reflected in insurance premiums.
Cllr Peter Fleming, chairman of the LGA's Improvement Board, said: "It is absolutely right that compensation is made available to people with genuine cases. But councils have feared for a long time that some lawyers are clogging up the system with spurious claims from people just chancing their arm.
"The vast majority of lawyers do a commendable job. However, there is a small but significant minority of opportunistic lawyers leeching away money which would be much better spent improving our schools and fixing our roads. Some of the claims being made and fees being charged beggar belief.”
Cllr Fleming added: "Popular local services like leisure facilities, children's centres and pothole repairs are likely to bear the brunt of funding cuts over the next two years. At a time when councils are contending with the biggest cuts to local service budgets in living memory, the extra burden of spurious compensation claims poses a real threat to councils' ability to protect the services people value most.
"Public safety is a priority for local authorities who take seriously their responsibility to avoid these types of claims occurring in the first place by ensuring people do not come to any harm.”
He continued: "All too often the only real winners are the lawyers whose huge legal fees can dwarf the compensation payouts received by their clients.
"Government has already gone some way towards reforming no-win no-fee claims, but we need a further and fuller overhaul of the system to stop opportunistic lawyers lining their pockets at the public's expense."
A Law Society spokesperson said: “No win, no fee arrangements have enabled many people who could not otherwise assert their rights to receive the justice to which they are entitled. They provide victims of accidents with fair and effective access to justice and protect the more vulnerable members of society.
“Certain types of cases, including personal injury resulting from poor practice by local authorities - where people are injured through no fault of their own and have suffered real damage - are facilitated through these effective arrangements.”