Tragically, life expectancy for a mesothelioma victim from a doctor’s diagnosis is often less than a year. A widow and close family relatives are then left with the task of urgently appealing for former work colleagues to provide witness accounts of working conditions and the absence of protection against the presence of asbestos.
Tax chiefs stand accused of breaching the human rights of bereaved spouses and the terminally ill by making them wait more than a year for key evidence in compensation claims. Lawyers say an average time of 383 days to retrieve historic work records by HM Revenue and Customs is denying claimants the right to pursue firms over work-related conditions.The widow of an insulation engineer killed by mesothelioma after years working with asbestos attacked the "crazy" backlog and pleaded with the Government to speed up the process.
HMRC blames a lack of machines to access records held only on archaic microfilm and a surge in claims spurred by law firm TV ads for the long waits. Some with little time to live risked being denied justice altogether, lawyers argued, accusing officials of failing to act on their calls for action to improve the service.
It has emerged that employment records - required to identify employers or insurers liable to compensation claims - were kept on microfilm right up until 1997 when the system was digitised. HMRC, though, has only 36 operational microfiche machines for the time-consuming searches and even those break down frequently, sparking hunts for parts or engineers with the skills to fix them.
The number of applications for records has trebled from 40,000 a year to 120,000 over the past five years - each requiring on average 20 items to be located. HMRC said the jump was "driven by a rise in personal injury claims and heavy marketing from the sector" and had put strain on the hardware and the film itself.
The additional distress caused to a family if there are perceived unnecessary delays in the process can be enormous. The victim may only survive a further 2 to 4 months, and in some cases, just a few weeks. It is all the more devastating to hear that there is to be a lengthy delay of between a year and 18 months or maybe more because vital work records are held by HMRC only on microfiche – an obsolete method of data storage from more than thirty years ago.