War of the widows

One in five life insurance claims is refused by the insurers, often on technicalities. Here, Juliet

When my 47-year-old husband, Nikolai, died of cancer he left me and our three dependent children with a £146,000 mortgage and a £250,000 life insurance policy to tide us over the next few difficult years. He died knowing his family would be cared for by Scottish Widows. Six weeks later, regarded by psychologists as the lowest point following bereavement, the insurance company sent me a letter refusing to pay the claim, citing "non-disclosure of material facts".

I was faced with repossession of the house and moving the children (aged nine, 12 and 15) out of their schools and away from friends. My friends told me to put the insurance issue behind me and move on: who was I, a housewife with a part-time job, to take on a huge corporation? But I knew my husband of 20 years to be an honest man. He would never have deliberately withheld medical information.

I, too, had been at the meeting where a Lloyds TSB adviser (Scottish Widows is the bank's life and pensions subsidiary business) had completed our application form for us on her laptop. So what had gone wrong?

Nikolai told her he had been suffering from unexplained fevers for about three months, but that they had recently stopped and he believed he had recovered. Hospital tests and scans had come back negative but he was due to go for more. The adviser, probably accidentally rather than intentionally (though commissions for policies can run into thousands of pounds), wrongly recorded that his fevers had ceased almost a year before our meeting rather than a month before. She also failed to detail the hospital tests. In fact, she made a number of glaring errors on the three-page computer printout application, including wrongly identifying us both as smokers, spelling our address and our names incorrectly, transposing vital dates and giving one-word answers about medical conditions where the form sought "full details".

We were given no opportunity to see the form, which was sent electronically to the Scottish Widows underwriting system immediately. We were then asked to sign a declaration saying we had read through the form and agreed with its content and to sign against our wrongly spelt names. We were told that the completed application form would be sent to us in the post.

I later discovered that it was never meant to be printed out let alone seen by us. Incredibly, the £250,000 contract came into effect three months later with our names still wrongly spelt. I was outraged when the company dismissed this as part of "a few typographical errors".

The automatic underwriting process loaded Nikolai's premiums by 75 per cent with no explanation and no further medical inquiries. Meanwhile, Nikolai naturally presumed this was because Scottish Widows had taken out a GP report following his disclosure of ongoing tests for his former fevers - and also because he had told the adviser he wasn't in good health. Yet it was only when the claim was made that the company decided it required a GP report and then began looking for evidence of non-disclosure - irrespective of whether it was linked to his death. This common practice is odious and devastating for the policyholder.

In fact, one in five life insurance claims is not met because of this kind of "post-claim underwriting". We knew none of this at the time and completely trusted the adviser and the underwriting system. Nikolai, Russian by birth, was an internationally acclaimed photojournalist and had seen a great deal of global corruption. He wanted to bring his children up in an honest, moral society with rules by which both corporations and public abide. He believed that Britain was such a society and would have trusted implicitly a big-brand insurance company.

But, like many insurance companies, Scottish Widows had abandoned its mutual status to become a public company whose sole responsibility is to maximise profits for shareholders at the expense of policyholders. The iconic, caped Scottish widow is just a PR path to profits now. Yet, ironically, the company was originally set up to protect real young widows during the Napoleonic Wars.

Like 548,337 other people that year, I took my case to the financial ombudsman. This service has seen a general upsurge in complaints from people like myself. It took me three years of intense internet research, mounds of paperwork and many weekends and evenings, time that should have been spent with the children.

The company was determined to see me off. I was forced to sell our family home and move to Somerset. Eventually, to my immense relief, three years after my initial complaint, the ombudsman finally upheld my case, finding that, "although the firm's decision to cover the complainant's husband may have been due to a mistake, this mistake cannot be attributed to the complainant's husband; in my judgement, it is attributable to its own automated underwriting processes and data entry error by its agent".

This system of selling policies has now been changed industry-wide, says Scottish Widows. After the final ruling in my favour on 17 August it issued the following statement, which it reiterated to the NS: "In June 2004, Scottish Widows received a life policy claim following the death of Mr Ignatiev. In July 2004 this claim was declined. We do not take lightly the decision to decline a claim, but in this case we were, and still are, of the view that there was material non-disclosure of relevant information. We recognise the important role of the Financial Ombudsman Service in such cases and have always maintained we will accept the final FOS ruling. This final ruling was received on 17 August 2007 and, as a result, we will be settling the claim."

Since Nikolai's death I have uncovered many pitiful and heart-rending stories, where bereaved or terminally ill people have been refused what was rightfully theirs.

Jan Trainer appealed to the ombudsman when her 43-year-old husband Dave was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Scottish Widows refused to pay out, relying on the innocent non-disclosure of an unrelated medical condition. "It's a blatant and cruel use of a technicality to renege on an agreement," says Jan. "As a solicitor, I am up against insurance companies on a daily basis; my work involves obtaining compensation for individuals injured in often very serious accidents. It never ceases to amaze me what tactics are used to avoid meeting their obligation to victims. And the people who have to take on these powerful companies are mostly vulnerable individuals already crippled with emotional pain."

It took the ombudsman's office only three days to uphold Jan and Dave's complaint.

Jerry and Rosemary Horsman, both farmers, were devastated when their daughter Alice was crushed in a farm accident, leaving two small children. Scottish Widows denied her claim because of innocent non-disclosure of a medical condition. Her parents took the case to the ombudsman, but had to battle for two and a half years for justice. "What still horrifies me," says Jerry, "is that the 2001 application form was ludicrously flawed. It was a cheap and cheerful policy to scoop up premiums.

"The inadequate application process makes it ridiculously easy for companies to cherry-pick medical evidence in order to wriggle out of paying. It's shocking to think how many of us are living in a fools' paradise thinking we have cover when we don't."

The ombudsman looks at what is fair and reasonable as opposed to the strict letter of archaic law. However, the Law Commission is now reviewing the 100-year-old insurance law and forward-looking judges, such as Lord Eassie (former chairman of the Scottish Law Commission), are aligning themselves with the ombudsman in recognising that the law is heavily biased against the consumer. Last year, Valerie Cuthbertson, a theatre manager, won a landmark ruling in court when Lord Eassie ruled that Friends Provident was wrong in denying her critical illness cover. Her appeal to the ombudsman had not been upheld but she fought on with the help of legal aid and won through the courts.

We are being mugged by the corporate world. Perhaps ordinary individuals who stand up against the big corporations are the have-a-go-heroes of personal finance.

Do we make a difference? I would certainly like to think so.

548,337 number of complaints each year to insurance ombudsman

1 in 10 UK adults admit to having cheated on an insurance claim

52% of people fail to check life policy details to ensure they have adequate cover

1st reason for life assurance after age 60 is to minimise inheritance-tax liability

70% of insurance sales included hidden extras of which customer oblivious

49% of people never know precisely what they have insurance for

10% rise in complaints about insurance to ombudsman in the year to 2006/2007

£750,000 paid in fines by one insurer after flaws in handling complaints

Research by Jo Barrett

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq