Loss Assessors have to live with the industry's negative view of their activities. But is this image justified? Claire Veares talks to both sides.

Not many loss assessors will take too kindly to the image painted of them in the industry today. Not only are they accused of trying to get as high a settlement as possible for policyholders just to boost their share of the proceeds, they are also portrayed as fire engine chasers, people who see the smoke and arrive to offer their services while the ashes are still smouldering.

It is no surprise that loss assessors see themselves differently. Alan Harris, director of the Harris Claims Group and president of the Institute of Public Loss Assessors claims the image is unfair. "Loss assessors are here to help the public," he says. "Insurance companies have a loss adjuster working for them, so the insured also need someone to represent them. You would not go to court and defend yourself."

But only a fraction of large claims have an assessor working on them. Harris says this is because brokers do not tell clients of the existence of assessors, since they often feel they can do the claims handling themselves. This can be time consuming for brokers, however, and often the work gets left to the loss adjuster supplied by the insurance company.

Another loss assessor, Nicholas Balcombe, chief executive of the Balcombe Group, says loss assessors get their business in one of three ways. Some is through personal recommendations, some from professional references, and the rest he admits comes from what he doesn't like to call ambulance chasing.

Both Harris and Balcombe say the law in this country works against them. "In France it is the law that the public must have an independent body working for them," says Harris. Balcombe points out that in other countries, funds to pay for loss assessors are a normal part of insurance policies. Here, policies can be taken out specially to cover the cost of a claims handler to smooth the process, but the policy will normally provide for the services of a loss adjuster, not an assessor.

Creating closer ties
Malcolm Harvey managing director of the Loss Recovery Group (LRG) which provides such policies says insurance to cover loss adjusters for policy holders is becoming more and more common. LRG offers a complete claims handling service using a panel of chartered loss adjusters, surveyors, valuers and accountants.

Harvey is dismissive of loss assessors. "A loss assessor can set up today and be handling clients tomorrow." He thinks assessors should qualify as loss adjusters and be part of the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters (CILA).

Graham Cave, executive director of CILA says he has spoken to the Institute of Public Loss Assessors about closer ties between the two organisations. Two things seem to be stopping progress. Before any assessor can join CILA, they need to acquire chartered loss adjuster status. This typically takes three to five years, and it was felt that few assessors would be interested in taking this route. The annual membership fees for CILA of £300 are also thought to be a barrier.

Cave says there will always be someone performing the role of the loss assessor. "It will either be a loss assessor or one of our members. People do want someone to act on their behalf."

Peter Graham, technical claims manager at Norwich Union agrees that there is a place for loss assessors, but he says loss adjusters have been improving their own image and have become more attuned to the needs of customers. He admits that their impartiality can be questioned, since the insurance company is paying for their services, but with loss assessors he says, " it is always in the back of your mind as to where they obtain their fee."

Good assessors do add some value to the customer by doing an awful lot of the legwork, Graham adds, "but the very poor ones are simply there to extract their fee and can get in the way of the best settlement".